The common belief that steals our joy
I used to bring work to the nail salon. Sometimes just a notebook with a few scribbles of a blog post I was working on. Sometimes a book and some index cards. Sometimes a stack of printed out journal articles with titles like “Positive Affect and Markers of Inflammation: Discrete Positive Emotions Predict Lower Levels of Inflammatory Cytokines.” While the women around me flipped through issues of US Weekly and Elle, I squinted at blocks of 8-point type and diagrams of brain regions.
It wasn’t just the nail salon, either. If I was meeting a friend at a museum, I brought a notebook along in case I got there early and had a half hour to write. On vacation, I brought a laptop with me as a matter of course. Sometimes, I even took work to a bar. (The next day, I could see the effects of the wine on the page, my handwriting getting bigger and looser after the first glass kicked in.)
At the time, I thought this made me dedicated. I cared about my work so much that it only seemed natural to bring it with me everywhere. I was influenced by books like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which describes the natural resistance we have to creative work and suggests discipline as the way to overcome it. (It’s a useful book, but read with care.) I also had read many stories of accomplished people who revealed that the secret to their success was commitment, which sounded purposeful, but was really just code for “working all the time.” Jerry Seinfeld famously induced himself to write every single day by putting an X on a calendar. At a certain point, you just don’t want to “break the chain,” he said. Martha Stewart famously sleeps only 4 hours a night, and is rumored to sleep with the lights on so she can immediately get back to work when she wakes up. Danielle Steele, author of 179 books and the holder of a Guinness world record for having a book on the New York Times bestseller list longer than any other author, has a sign in her office that reads, “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.” She produces seven books a year by working 22 hours a day. (No, that’s not a typo.)
I, on the other hand, need a relatively human seven hours of sleep a night. I never had much success at waking up at 4 or 5am to write, and I like to be out and about doing things. Taking work along for the ride was a habit acquired during the time when I worked a full-time job and my writing was a side project that I needed to fit into my leisure time. Reading books about neuroscience in a restaurant or a park helped me make progress on the book that would become Joyful at a time when I didn’t really feel like I was making progress at anything in life.
And yet, I rarely got much done on these excursions. I might read one page of an academic paper, then start to glaze over. I would take out my phone and scroll Instagram for a few minutes, then steer my attention back to the papers again, and slog through another page. Suddenly, my pedicure was over, and I hurried back to my desk on rainbow-painted feet, feeling guilty about how unproductive I’d been during my so-called “break.”
I was always exhausted in those days, and always feeling guilty. Each morning I started out with an optimistic to do list that by the middle of the day felt unachievable. I would set word counts and then miss them. I would tell myself I’d finish writing a chapter and then get stuck on a single paragraph for two hours. I had big goals for my work, and each day, as my productivity lagged, it felt as if I was watching myself fail — not just to complete my self-assigned tasks, but to live up to my potential. So when it was time for a break, the work I carried in my bag was like a shield against guilt — even if I never actually did much of it. I intended to work. That was what mattered.
It would be easy to label my behavior a classic case of workaholism and move on. But I think that explanation is a little too tidy. Because when we lean into one part of our lives hard, it’s rarely just about what we’re moving toward. Often, it’s also about what we’re trying to avoid. I was addicted to work, certainly, but I was also avoiding joy. (Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the irony of a person who is writing a book about joy avoiding it for themselves. Oof.)
Why would I avoid joy? I’ve come to realize it’s because a part of me never felt like I deserved it. I grew up on the idea that work is synonymous with purpose, that it is our contribution to society, and that a strong work ethic is essential to being a good person. Joy was a reward, something you earned as a result of your hard work. In my mind, to deserve joy, I had to earn it by working hard and achieving my goals. But as Devon Price points out in their book Laziness Does Not Exist, there is always more work to do, and always new goals to achieve. No matter how hard we work, it’s easy to feel like we never really deserve joy.
I’ve found that this notion of “deserving joy” tends to make people a little squirrely (myself included). Ask someone point blank if they feel they deserve joy, and they’re likely to say, “Of course I do!” Yet our behavior reveals many ways in which we force ourselves to earn joy, not just by working, but through other actions we consider worthy. How many of these sound familiar to you?
- You allow yourself dessert only on days when you’ve “been good” by eating healthy foods and exercising. (Or you allow your kids dessert only if they’ve eaten their dinner first.)
- A friend invites you to an impromptu dinner party, but you’re got a number of emails in your inbox that are waiting for replies, and you feel you need to stay and answer them instead.
- You struggle to let yourself do a puzzle or a craft project if the house is a mess. You feel like you need to clean up first.
- You have a tendency to choose leisure activities that are “productive.” Instead of playing an instrument, you choose something that you could turn into a side hustle.
- You feel guilty that you’re not volunteering enough or giving more money to the causes that matter to you. Doing something nice for yourself feels selfish, but you’re too tired to volunteer, so you end up doomscrolling. (At least then you don’t feel so guilty.)
- You only read serious non-fiction books because they feel like self-improvement. Reading purely for pleasure feels frivolous and self-indulgent.
- Seeing a partner lounging on the sofa in the middle of the day makes you feel annoyed. Even if they’ve finished everything on their to do list, it still feels weird to see them just sitting around resting.
- Your to do list doesn’t disappear when you’ve finished all your work. It actually gets longer, as you realize how much more you could be fitting into your time.
These behaviors may seem disconnected, but they’re united by the common idea that joy is not something we are inherently worthy of, but rather we’re entitled to it only when we have done another thing that we consider virtuous. This notion is pervasive in our culture. Work is how we earn leisure. Eating healthy and exercise are how we earn dessert. Generosity is how we earn time for ourselves. Virtue is how we earn joy.
The conditioning that has shaped this value system runs deep. The Protestant work ethic venerates labor by promising eternal reward. (Work now, joy later.) Work is morally good, while play and rest are seen as lazy or wasteful. Capitalism reinforces this idea by measuring our value as humans by our capacity to work and produce. Joy has no inherent value in our society, unless it entails consumption, which further promotes economic activity. Even the way we gain vacation in a corporate structure reflects this: we “earn” vacation days through work as if they are a perk being granted, rather than a right to which we are entitled.
Related to this is a strain of moral thought dating back to Medieval Christianity that equates sacrifice and abstaining from pleasure with goodness, while enjoyment is self-indulgent and bad. We can see this line of thought in the contemporary embrace of eudaimonia, a kind of happiness that emphasizes meaning and fulfillment, over hedonia or hedonism, a more pleasure-centric happiness that is dismissed as self-indulgent by comparison. Diet culture imposes a similar moral structure on our bodies, assigning positive moral value to salads and spinning, and negative value to sugar and fat.
The problems with this value system are numerous. For starters, it sidelines joy, turning it into a luxury we can earn only through “necessary” activities like work. Time with family and friends, celebrations, a walk in nature, playing music, putting together a puzzle — these are tangential to the real purpose of life, which is to contribute to society through work. So we start to view these activities as non-essential extras that we fit into our spare time when we have it.
But even then, we’re not free to simply enjoy our joys. Because within this value system, joy is a moral negative. If work is good, then not working is bad. Play and pleasure aren’t valuable in their own right. Just the opposite: they are wasteful and undesirable. The influence of this can be seen in the movement to justify rest and leisure by painting them as something that enables us to work more effectively and be productive members of society. This is an attempt to reclaim joy that works within the existing value system, trying to make joy purposeful rather than questioning why we feel it needs a purpose at all.
By definition, then, all joy is something to feel guilty about, unless it comes from a virtuous activity such as work. We can’t hope to erase this guilt — only to offset it by engaging in behaviors that will cancel out our indulgence. The phrase “Work hard, play hard,” is one manifestation of this offsetting behavior. So are detoxes, which are a kind of purification rite through which diet culture tells us to atone for eating “bad” foods. The splurge and save cycles many of us go through in managing our money can also reflect this pattern.
And if this belief system creates guilt when we turn it inward on ourselves, turned outward it looks a lot like judgment. We’re constantly judging others as deserving or not based on our perception of their virtue. Fat people face this stigma constantly, being seen as lazy or lacking in self-control based on their appearance. While it’s considered acceptable and even cool for a thin person to enjoy an ice cream sundae (because she’s assumed to have “earned it” based on her diet and exercise choices), a fat person is seen as indulgent for doing the same thing. Similarly, people living in poverty are seen as undeserving of even the smallest joys (which is why public housing rarely has color or nature as part of its design), while people who are wealthy are excused for even the wildest excesses because it’s “their money” and they’re entitled to do what they want with it. Never mind if they didn’t actually earn it. The capitalist equation of value with money means that having money, no matter how it was acquired, is seen as being entitled to the pleasures it affords.
So how do we break out of this joy-killing system? How do we free ourselves from the guilt and the judgment that makes it impossible for us to enjoy our lives, and let others enjoy theirs too?
The answer lies in a radical shift in our understanding of what joy is, and what makes us worthy of it. Instead of seeing joy as a reward, we need to see it as an essential part of human life, one that is not an outcome but a vital input to our flourishing. And we need to see all human beings as worthy of joy, unconditionally, not based on their work ethic, or their income, or their contribution to society. The unhoused person living on the street corner, the lazy loafer, and the subway busker — all are worthy of joy, just as much as the multi-millionaire, the charity worker, and the nurse.
I recognize this shift is hard to make. We have so much programming that tells us that some people are more deserving than others, and that our worth is tied to our work. But as long as joy is conditional, it will always be something we need to earn. And no matter how hard we work, or how good we are, there will always be the possibility that we could’ve worked harder, could’ve been better. As long as joy is conditional, there will always be a reason to deny it to ourselves.
You deserve joy. Just as you are. You always have. And you always will.
Image: Jesse Bowser via unsplash