On Reclaiming Joy
By Jennifer Alumbaugh
I have a confession: I’m not entirely certain that the pursuit of happiness is a necessarily useful or wholly possible endeavor.
Now, before you grab your pitchforks or rotten tomatoes, stay with me a while inside this idea. I’m a much bigger fan of the pursuit of joy. You might think I’m just arguing semantics. And you may hold to that thought by the time you reach the end of this blog. But I propose that the difference is significant and goes much deeper than mere language.
Clarification: I’m not entirely certain that happiness—pure, unadulterated, levity—is attainable for everyone.
Yes. That’s better. A more true representation of my thesis.
Caveat: I am someone who has lived with chronic grief her whole life, a pervasive soul sorrow that has cast a shadow over so many moments. My exploration is absolutely colored by this experience. I also write as someone who has carried an immense amount of shame and guilt around my difficulty with experiencing happiness. I realize that there may be some readers who have difficulty grasping this notion and for that, I am sincerely grateful.
It’s important for us to take a look at some of the mechanics that go into how people feel the emotions they encounter. Personality types and nervous system settings influence the ways in which we experience the world. Some people self-identify—through a process of self-discovery—as Empaths or Highly Sensitive individuals. This is a personality type, a biological setting, people are either prone to or not. These individuals have emotional feeling receptors which operate at a much broader frequency than others of us. They can attune to what others are feeling, experiencing the feeling with another vividly and in real time. A person’s capacity for compassion also influences happiness. Identity and lived-experiences are significant contributors or detractors of happiness—if one moves about the world with little conflict regarding their personhood, this is a kind of privilege that contributes to increased levels of happiness while those for whom safety, rights, and access to life’s necessities and bounty are limited often exhibit difficulties with sustaining happiness. Certainly our location—geographically and socially—influences our ability to experience happiness as do our experiences in the world from freedoms, to traumas, to exposure to violence, to attachments, to opportunities, to privileges.
The teachings tell us that we could be happy if we just choose to be. Choice. Such a tricky word. There is a great deal about our identities and our experiences that we have no agency over to accept or decline or even change. Some of us have more wiggle room than others in changing certain aspects of our circumstances—but even those with the most resources are limited, fundamentally, in what aspects of self and life they can alter. And while all of us have some choices, we don’t all have the same choices or the same access to changing our circumstances.
As a white woman I can choose to engage—or not—with news and social justice issues around race; my Black kindred do not have this choice. They cannot decide to not be Black one day because it would be easier. As an ally, I choose to remain engaged, aware, connected, and present with feeling the viscera of race trauma in the US today. I don’t know it first hand, but empathically I remain open to the grief, sorrow, horror, outrage, and despair experienced by my friends of color.
I acknowledge that it is a choice I make to keep my self, my heart, my soul open to the effects of being aware of social (in)justices occurring in my community, my country, and globally. I realize that this choice puts me at risk for experiencing reduced instances of happiness. I could tune out. There is indeed a certain bliss that accompanies ignorance. For me, that path is not an option because it is out of line with my authentic being and becoming.
But here is the thing, in the very midst of grief, of sorrow, of pain, I continue to experience life-giving joys. While happiness is a fleeting moment, dependent up on circumstances—a job promotion, a favorite flavor of ice cream, a silly joke, reciprocated affection of a beloved—joy abides, even inside the darkest night.
Joy is a kindred of contentment, of feeling fulfilled, of deep gratitude. Joy can be dancing delight. Joy can be great belly laughter. Joy is awe-struck wonder. Joy is a heart full and over-flowing. Joy is doing what we love—a resounding satisfaction. Joy can show up in our tear-stained storms radiating rainbows.
My intention with this post is not some doomsday moratorium on happiness. My hope is that maybe we open the circle a little wider and before reposting that next “you could be happy if you really wanted to” meme, you pause a moment. Consider those in your community who are beared down in grief. Those who have survived unspeakable losses. Those who navigate the challenges of mental or medical health issues. Consider our kin in war zones and those surviving hunger and home and financial insecurities daily. Hold for a moment those who move about the world inside identities that are bullied, threatened, mocked, and misunderstood. Make some room for their difficulties with happiness and allow for the possibility of joy. Happiness is so much more luck than choice; joy is a practice.
Wherever you may be in this moment, whatever burdens you bear, whatever lightness you relish, may an extraordinary joy show up for you today, and linger a while in your heart.
Jennifer Alumbaugh, MS is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist providing clinical and professional development consultation services at Enrichment Training and Counseling Solutions. She has extensive experience working with adolescent and adult survivors of psychological and spiritual abuse, trauma (sexual violence, childhood trauma, interpersonal violence); and complex PTSD. These, along with grief and loss work are her areas of specialization. Jennifer practiced as a mental health clinician throughout Los Angeles County working with children, youth, and their families from 2007-2012. In Central Texas, Jennifer has worked as a Site Coordinator with Communities in Schools of The Heart of Texas at G.W. Carver Middle School; as an independent consultant and professional development trainer; and conference speaker. In 2016 Jennifer created an implemented a therapeutic creative writing program, Brave Young Voices, at Klaras Center for Families and at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department correctional campus at Mart, TX. She may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 254-405-2496.
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