Staying vulnerable in an age of cruelty.
Happiness usually involves a victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another. Joy comes after years of changing diapers, driving to practice, worrying at night, dancing in the kitchen, playing in the yard and just sitting quietly together watching TV. Joy is the present that life gives you as you give away your gifts.
The core point is that happiness is good, but joy is better. It’s smart to enjoy happiness, but it’s smarter still to put yourself in situations where you might experience joy.
People receive joy after they have over-invested in their friendships. The thing the wisest people say about friendship is this: Lovers stand face to face staring into each other’s eyes. But friends stand side by side, staring at the things they both care about. Friendship is about doing things together. So people build their friendships by organizing activities that are repeated weekly, monthly or annually: picnics, fantasy leagues, book clubs, etc.
They say that love is blind, but the affection friends have for each other is the opposite of blind. It is ferociously attentive. You are vulnerable, and your friend holds your vulnerability. He pauses, and you wait for him. You err, and she forgives.
“You will be loved,” the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese wrote, “the day when you will be able to show your weakness without the other person using it to assert his strength.”
Transparency is the fuel of friendship. We live in an age of social media. It’s very easy to create false personas and live life as a performance.
We live in a cruel time, when people attack you when they see a hint of vulnerability. So, it’s extra important to stick with emotional honesty even after people take advantage of your vulnerability to inflict pain. Vulnerability is the only means we have to build relationships, and relationships are the only means we have to experience joy.
My friend Catherine Bly Cox observed that when her first daughter was born she realized she loved her more than evolution required. I love that phrase because it speaks to what is distinctly human, our complex and infinite caring for one another.
There are some things we do because biology demands it. There are some things we do to pay the rent. But material drives don’t explain the magic of our friendships and the way our soul sings when we watch loved ones glow.
Sometimes when you’re out with your friends, you taste a kind of effervescent joy. Several years ago, the writer Zadie Smith was dancing at a club with her friends when a song from A Tribe Called Quest came on. At that point, she wrote, “A rail-thin man with enormous eyes reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing over and over: You feeling it? I was. My ridiculous heels were killing me, I was terrified I might die, yet I felt simultaneously overwhelmed with delight that ‘Can I Kick It?’ should happen to be playing at this precise moment in the history of the world, and was now morphing into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I took the man’s hand. The top of my head flew away. We danced and danced. We gave ourselves up to joy.”
When you have moments like that you realize there is magic in the world. You can’t create the magic intentionally, but when you are living at that deep affectionate level, it sometimes just combusts within you. A blaze of joy.
The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.
Natural happiness is happiness when you get what you want.
Synthetic happiness is happiness that you make when you don’t get what you want.