You don’t have to be happy to feel joy
Last week, the writer Ian Bogost wrote a piece about my work in The Atlantic called “The Infrastructure of Joy.” I’ve been thinking about his opening lines on and off all week:
I’m not generally known as a happy person. I don’t think that’s because I’m unhappy, exactly, or because I’m a cynic or a naysayer, even though I have my moments. No, I think it’s because I’m allergic to the idea of happiness as anything but a shorthand for some vague and abstract notion of contentment. Being happy is great, but it’s also amorphous and lava-lampy. If you ask me whether I’m hungry, I’ve got a reliable heuristic for answering. If you ask me whether I’m happy, I’m most likely to think, What would it even mean to be happy?
I hear some variation of this all the time: “I don’t think of myself as a happy person.” “I’m not one of those happy people.” “I know a lot of happy people but I’ve just never been one of them.” Sometimes this said derisively, sometimes with somber resignation.
Yet one breath later, these same people can tell me about a moment of profound joy they experienced — a transcendent climb to the top of a quiet ridge on a hike or an evening with friends so connected that it felt like time just stopped.
You don’t need to be happy to feel joy. (For more on the difference between joy and happiness, and why it matters, see here.) Little moments of joy happen to us all the time, whether or not we consider ourselves happy people or not. They happen in good times and also right in the middle of stressful or miserable ones. And we all have the capacity to notice them, savor them, and make more of them.
So what happens when we take happiness and make it an identity, one we either inhabit or don’t? What happens when we think of happiness as something to be rather than something to do and experience?
I’ve come to think that this notion really holds us back from joy. For people who don’t see themselves as happy, it’s too easy to overlook these small moments, dismissing them as trivial and unimportant. And for self-described “happy people,” this idea can be just as damaging. Thinking of yourself as a happy person can create a pressure to be cheerful, to always put on a happy face during struggle instead of letting yourself feel negative emotions, which of course is essential to being able to truly feel joy.
Joy is liberating for me because it removes identity from the equation. We’re all equally capable of feeling joy, and the more we do it, the less that this big, abstract idea of happiness seems to matter.