The enemy of joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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The enemy of joy is coolness.

So says Jim Cooper in an excellent post on his blog, Jim and His Camera. The post talks about witnessing the dancing and revelry of Shanghainese people of all ages in Fuxing Park, and ponders why in the West we don’t embrace such joyful behavior. The conclusion Jim comes to is that rather than embracing our impulses toward joy, we worship cool, a tendency that acts like a “joy police” to tamp down uninhibited displays and enforces this restraint with humiliation and ridicule. Jim writes:

Our lowest level of hell is embarrassment from being deemed uncool. When did we begin to worship this false god: the God of Cool?  The God of Cool forbids spontaneity, silliness and innocence. He encourages snickering not belly laughter, he allows crotch grinding, and ass-shaking but not the smooth arm extended glide of romance – romance is patronized, smiles must be condescending and arrogance is encouraged.

What an evil god the God of Cool is.

I think Jim is right on here. The extent to which joy and coolness are opposed is striking, even if not really surprising. Joy is inclusive and embracing; coolness is detached and superior. Joy is energetic and abundant; coolness is muted and scarce. Joy is warm, and coolness is well, chilly. Coolness is a rigid code of self-control that thrives in a climate of judgment, while joy is at its purest before we learn to judge. At its root, coolness is a status-conscious system, while joy is non-hierarchical, oblivious to rank and prestige.

We’re certainly not without our joys here in the West, but this particular kind of quotidian freedom to move and play is something we accord to children, not ourselves. We think too much of the potential judgments of others, and not enough of the pleasure and companionship we might find in the behavior itself. We’ve made it taboo and risky to be silly, playful, and vulnerable. Why do we only dance in the streets at festivals and parades, at places and times where such activity is sanctioned and corralled?

Jimcooper fuxing

There’s an evident tension between the freedoms enjoyed by Westerners and our abstention from many public joys, and the repressive constraints endured by most Chinese, and the way they give themselves to this kind of pleasure. Jim observes:

People in Fuxing Park have had lives harder than we in the West can ever imagine. They’ve survived revolution and cultural change beyond our comprehension. They twirl, jiggle, sing, fling and sometimes waltz with strangers – eyes closed, living in a perfect self-created moment. There’s a beautiful heartbreaking dignity to it: a dignity found in heroic uninhibited innocence.

Where do we find permission to recapture that joy? Because it is a kind of dignity, a much greater dignity than coolness’s hauteur, a dignity born of authenticity rather than condescension. It makes me wonder how design might better support the collective liberation of our playful tendencies. Where are the oases where we let the mask drop, where we risk awkwardness for joy? One place that occurs to me is amusement parks – but are there less extreme environments that break down our need to be seen a certain way, and allow us simply to enjoy ourselves together?

Images: Jim Cooper
Via: Paul Bennett 


March 19th, 2012


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    Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. Deb Prewitt on March 20, 2012

    How interesting to think of “cool” as being the enemy of “joy”. I have never been considered one of the “cool” people, which I have learned to accept and understand. Now I can see that tendency of “cool” inhibiting the natural “joy” and “playful” processes. I am happy to be “uncool”.

  2. larissa on March 20, 2012

    as Calvin once said:

  3. Maria on March 20, 2012

    My knee-jerk response is Karaoke. But I always rock at karaoke, so joy and cool collide for me in that particular sport.

    All kidding aside – this is a beautiful post and I can totally feel the tension in myself between “cool” and joy. The way I act at home with just Aaron and I, in hoodies playing MarioKart, is so much more life-giving than how reserved I try to be “outside” the house. Gonna start making some small changes.

  4. Sandra Martini on March 21, 2012

    I LOVE this post! It immediately brings me back to high school and how the “cool” people always acted a certain way and, while wishing I was one of them on the one hand, being grateful that I could “just be me” on the other.

    I take pleasure in being me, no matter how uncool I be.

    Thanks for sharing and reaffirming how being joyous is a gift we can all embrace.

  5. Pete Morris on March 30, 2012

    I’ve found my refuge from coolness within the remarkably inclusive, diverse, and passionate world of a soccer supporter’s group. Nowhere do I feel more free to joyfully sing loudly (and badly), and to embrace and dance with strangers–who fast become friends–than in Section 121 with the Angel City Brigade. Go Los Angeles Galaxy! And go Planet Football!!

  6. Leigh on July 15, 2012

    My husband’s father, a passionate artist and teacher always said,
    “Cool. Cold. Dead….Warm, Hot, on fire.”
    This post reminded me of him.


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