Choosing Joy

I recently came across a post by Maria Popova called “Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings.” Maria produces a very well-written and thought-provoking website / newsletter called The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) that is about, well, a lot. Her musings, readings, art, current events, she connects themes and weaves ideas. Subscribe to it here

In the article, #14 of her life-learnings stopped me. 

“Choose joy. Choose it like a child chooses the shoe to put on the right foot, the crayon to paint a sky. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Feel the sorrow, take the action, but keep pressing the weight of joy against it all, until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the stream down its course; until it becomes an inner law of nature…”

She focuses on this, of course, because of the two years we’ve all had. Because of where we all are. Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. Pre-COVID, anxiety affected 30% of youth; US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy just warned that “anxiety and depression doubled during the pandemic” (New York Times, Dec 2021). 

But importantly, joy doesn’t require the absence of anxiety. 

Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus—an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice. So often, it is a matter of attending to what Hermann Hesse called, as the world was about to come unworlded by its first global war, “the little joys”; so often, those are the slender threads of which we weave the lifeline that saves us.” 

In essence, we can choose to step into joy as a state of mind by directing our focus, or our actions, in small and simple ways. 

At ThinkGive, we work to combat youth anxiety by promoting awareness, connection, inclusion, and prosocial behavior. One of the tenets of our program is that “Small is all.” Our seemingly tiny actions, words, choices, thoughtsthey are, in fact, everything. They empower us, they inform our character, and they lead to joy. 

One doesn’t have to tell a young child that small is all. They are naturally absorbed and intrigued by the small things. It is said that the moment a child becomes conscious of the self, however, true childhood ends. This direct connection to joy is severed. But does it have to be? Popova is saying that the strength of this connection is up to us. We can all choose joy by intentionally focusing on the seemingly mundane, unimportant things in life. And we can encourage our youth to do the same.

“Delight in the age-salted man on the street corner waiting for the light to change, his age-salted dog beside him, each inclined toward the other with the angular subtlety of absolute devotion,” Popova continues. Delight in the little girl zooming past you on her little bicycle, this fierce emissary of the future, rainbow tassels waving from her handlebars and a hundred beaded braids spilling from her golden helmet. Delight in the snail taking an afternoon to traverse the abyssal crack in the sidewalk for the sake of pasturing on a single blade of grass. Delight in the tiny new leaf, so shy and so shamelessly lush, unfurling from the crooked stem of the parched geranium.”

In ThinkGive speak, this could also mean including a peer in a game at recess. It could mean being there for a friend. It could mean asking to learn more about someone’s culture or beliefs. And yes, it could mean taking a moment to appreciate the flawed beauty of something or someone that you see everyday. These choices, actions, and micro-awarenesses all lead to marked increases in gratitude, kindness, empowerment, and connection.  

Our findings line up directly with what research tells us, that prosocial behavior—the propensity to act kindly or generously toward others—has been directly associated with positive emotional, social, physical, and academic adjustment. 

Interestingly, we have never measured joy as an outcome of the ThinkGive program. It has always felt too big, perhaps unattainable. But reading Maria’s entry made me wonder. Why shouldn’t joy be a goal? Perhaps our message to our youth – and to ourselves – should be one of aspiration and hope. That pure and simple joy is attainable, and accessible, to us all. 

Popova concludes her entry with a verse from Jane Hirshfield’s poem “The Weighing:”

So few grains of happiness

measured against all the dark

and still the scales balance.

“Yes,” she writes, “except we furnish both the grains and the scales. I alone can weigh the blue of my sky, you of yours.”