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The Art of JOY

Many of these writing focus on themes in the arts; but today i want to point towards quality of life, and speak to art in service of quality of life. That is, a great creative act is one in which we tune into the ways and means of connecting with joy, and that kind of state of being radiates towards everyone, in all directions.

Let's start with some points of contrast: Imagine high school juniors in detention hall. Imagine victims of human trafficking. Imagine quiet bureaucrats who sacrifice their lives to simply hold down a job and support their families. Imagine 16,000,000 people in the United States alone suffering from depression. Imagine that the greatest mental health challenge in Great Britain in the last five years has been the suicide of farmers, who do not know how to address the impossible question of the viability of the family farm, and farmlands in general. These are the dark moments. And no discussion of counterpoints would be complete without at least a nod to the international saber rattling among great powers at present, and the outbreaks of hate groups and terrorist strikes. Hunger, inequality and police abuses, too. Our journalism outlets tell us all about it, 24/7. How do we balance the woe? Thus begins the exploration of pathways to joy.

One of the nation's top scholars in social issues, sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich, wrote the noteworthy Nickel and Dimed, about minimum wage and welfare living for the poorest Americans. Ehrenreich went undercover to adopt the lifestyle of an adult minimum wage worker, spending years working as a maid, as a fast food worker, waitress, nursing-home aide, etc. A few years later, she confessed, her spirits were so low that she actually developed the concept for her next book as a prescription for misery. Dancing in the Streets, a chronicle of collective joy, was born. Ehrenreich reminded us all of the community enhancing, mental-health raising, societal tonic of celebration: weddings, dances, barn-raisings, political parodies, festivals and sing-alongs. Across the globe, new and old celebrations are combining classic features of music and merriment with natural settings and new-world pyrotechnics and lighting. Millennials, in particular, favor the massing of joy.

Roskilde Festival

Contemporary researcher Laurel Mellin explains that we are Wired for Joy: joy is an inner state that allows humans to throw off the aversive effects of stress. Ironically, in this age of too-much information, negative events and fearful potentials are the targets of most attention. We tend to pay inordinate attention to potential threats. Instead, Mellin argues, organizations could do a lot to ward off absenteeism, poor morale and siloism by proactively organizing joyful events. People perform better when they are not miserable. Thanks modern social science! So the question is, how do we connect with joy when it is so elusive sometimes?

First and foremost, joy is not happiness. Happiness is the more superficial, kissing-cousin of joy. Happiness is a culmination of successful efforts to satisfy desire, ambition, or turf. Joy, by contrast, is an inner state of poise and contentment that accepts life's ups and downs with equanimity.

There are ways in which one's attention can be drawn to joy, with surprisingly potent effects. Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath find that the effects of heart disease and hypertension can be reversed, simply by focusing on a state of appreciation. In fact, focusing upon what one loves and what one appreciates changes negative emotional states and reverses cascades of neuropeptides that contribute to stress-related illness. The heart is the only organ in the body with efferent inputs to the brain. What does that mean? Only the heart can influence the brain, rather than the brain being the "boss." In sacred texts it is written, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." It has taken us a couple of thousand years to understand the potency of those words. What is the art of the shift?

A regular practice of focusing attention in the heart can have dramatic effects. First, attention upon loved ones is health inducing. Second, taking time to name gratitude sparks joy. Third, appreciating, inwardly and outwardly, the people in your world, your environment, your wisdom even in the face of challenge - these are practices that reset the attention from pragmatics and logistics, to love and joy. Over time, the sages tell us, the heart can become a powerful joy generator. From that place, then, celebrations are possible. Not just a cocktails party, or a rave, but an authentic shared space of love.

Joy is also distinct from pleasure. Pleasure is a wonderful balance to pain, but more lattes and vacation houses do not increase joy. More backrubs, more clothes, more money -- these do not hit the joy factor, either. What does? The creation of celebrations -- i.e., that attitude that all of life is to be embraced and honored. The movement of the body: yoga, dance, zumba, and team sports all celebrate the body in motion, which in turn generate endorphins, the "happy hormones." Discipline is also a key ingredient in the cake of joy. Discipline is a self-care act that points to the fulfillment that comes from steering around corrosive influences. What we forego in pleasure strengthens the backbone.

Time in nature is one of the most potent sources of joy. Even for those who are reluctant, lethargic or "not nature-lovers," nature balances our moods and attitudes. The Japanese call it "forest bathing:" that is, the practice of simply walking in the woods clears our minds and boosts our sense of well-being. What's more, going barefoot on the soil is known the reduce depression and prolong life.

The quality of forgiveness generates joy. This sounds odd, but forgiveness releases two or more people from a bond of shared injustice or victimization. Forgiveness sets both sides free and gives the heart peace. Artistic expression creates joy: losing one's self at a pottery wheel, or in a painting class, or a song group, is a marked pathway to joy. And finally, giving gifts creates joy. No, I'm not talking about a stroll down the aisles of Tiffany's. Rather a real gift is where potential and need meet. A person who needs a lift. A guy who needs a sandwich. A friend who needs perspective. Finally, no discussion of joy is complete without a nod to that elixir of life, a child's heart. If you feel disconnected from joy, hang with some very young children for a bit, and see what happens.

The bold invitation here is to become the artist of your own joy. How do you activate a place within that reorients your priorities and allows you to flow with life in a state of being and doing that is resilient to stress and embracing of challenge: living into actions that express joy and invite the same for others. I've listed some ingredients, but each person must tune in to their own wisdom to know which quality, and which time, and in what measure. Above all, I wish you JOY.

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