Many people will say that joy or bliss is our natural state and I think it is true. So why is it so hard to cultivate? What do we need to do to reclaim joy?
What is joy, anyway? The Oxford Dictionary calls it “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” I personally think it is much more than a feeling. I think it is a result, the experience that comes from:
- being constructive in working with others
- sharing with others
- working with our talents and making them into something wonderful in the world.
Joy is something shared and is a result of our being a part of the good in the world. Joy is something we can create through our own efforts and knowing that we are doing so, puts joy in our grasp.
The Influence Of The Cultural Story
Our social system can make it hard to feel joy because it values competition and so redirects and even co-opts our natural instincts for joy in the service of social competition and survival. The narrative we have been given is that life is a struggle, that it is miserable, and even that life is a war. We have been encouraged to be afraid of each other, and to fear loss at the hand of another person or force beyond our control. We have been encouraged to see the universe as unfriendly.
Social hierarchies and competition can feel very uncomfortable if you are seeking joy. Winning may be fun but seeking joy is a happier way of living and relating. Many sensitive people like me have friendship as one of their most important values. So when ranking and social competition intrude in relationships and work situations we can become unhappy. Because friendship is such an important value for many sensitive people, competitive reward-based cultures usually do not suit us. Pitting one person against another can be hard to live with and we may find that we often live outside or on the periphery of society as a result.
I am probably preaching to the choir here, but nonetheless it matters that we separate reality and the cultural story. The reality is that life is challenging. However if we see our challenges as part of our path to reclaiming joy they will have some important meaning for us. I am not just discussing our personal challenges but also our cultural and evolutional challenges as well. We are exploring this idea in this article.
Culture And Joy
Part of joy is caring about ourselves and others and being cared for in return. Most people expect some of that caring to come from their culture. What they do not realize is that it is not so simple. A culture is a project that serves a particular developmental purpose. Therefore, tribes have a different purpose than empires or capitalistic systems.
Each cultural system takes on its most urgent life supporting project. Therefore, Neanderthal humans would not have built a skyscraper. Not only did they not have the skills and tools but to do so would not have been an appropriate response to their most urgent need. Right now the world is beginning a cultural shift because our most urgent need is now dealing with climate change an environmental collapse rather than materialism, the purpose of our current cultural system.
If we expect our cultures to meet all of our needs we can easily be disappointed when that does not happen. If we are sensitive and see needs that are not being addressed, we may feel disconnected from our culture which, in turn, can make being different very uncomfortable for us and those around us. Everyone in a culture is expected to support it but if our cultural system conflicts with our most cherished values, we can have a lot of difficulty and feel an unwelcome alienation. It is our nature to connect and alienation takes that away from us.
All cultures create a story or narrative that describes their purpose and reward those who support their goals. Without being aware of it, our life becomes directed toward advancing in our culture’s reward system. We are trained in this direction early in life in schools that reward certain behaviors. Rewards and being right are often closely related. So when we learn to be right to survive or get rewards we are learning to think a certain way to survive. We are giving up independent thinking for the rewards of success. Success is not all bad and may feel good at least some of the time especially when it is consistent with our values. But rewards are not the same as joy. When we live from our most cherished values we will experience a greater joy that does not rely on the rewards or approval of others.
Joy Transcends Rewards
There is another way to relate to culture that helps us turn culture into an opportunity to create joy in our lives and those of others.
Cultures are large human constructions. They take a lot of effort to create and maintain and each has a lifecycle. They are created to solve a problem and then once the problem is solved we create a new culture to solve a new problem. At the end of each cultural system we end up with a new set of skills that we did not have. So each culture is a developmental step in addition to being our social home.
Whenever we go through a big challenge in life, we get a gift from it. Culture is like that. So the joy of creating a culture that is happy and healthy, learning the skills to do so and participating in the creating of the common good, these are all things that bring us joy. One way to describe it is that we humans have a huge need to be a part of the good in the world and it is something we deserve to give to ourselves.
If our culture is toxic and we feel alienated, then it can be hard to avail ourselves of the natural joy of participation and contribution. Fortunately we happen to be living at a time where we are seeing important efforts to create a friendlier (more egalitarian) cultural system. These efforts like all the efforts of change, start small and have been underway for some time. As a result, the Commons Movement and other social and ecological balancing efforts are gaining more steam. The alienation that many sensitive people experience can be gradually released as we progress in rebalancing the human and other-human natural worlds.
It is a great time to be sensitive!