ARTICLE: A Biography of Joy

Laurie Chandler MFT InternPeople in distress don’t come into therapy to talk about feeling happy. Clients need someone to hear and see their pain. They need to know they are not alone. They want to develop insight and change behavior. They want relief. Psychotherapy of all kinds seeks to understand and assuage emotional pain. Joy and a sense of well-being are exactly what’s missing and desired.

Anxiety, rage, shame, guilt, depression, and grief are psychotherapy’s turf. In Joy, Inspiration, and Hope, Jungian analyst Verena Kast wrote about the tendency for positive emotions to be neglected in psychology. She argued that therapists must consciously compensate for this one-sided tradition in psychology by helping clients feel more joy and the cluster of related feelings such as:

  • happiness
  • love
  • hope
  • satisfaction
  • contentment
  • wonder
  • patience
  • relief
  • gratitude
  • compassion
  • generosity
  • inspiration
  • trust,
  • serenity.

One way to do so is Kast’s suggestion to write a “biography of joy.” The idea is to track our experiences and ideas about joy and look at how they relate to our present struggle. She offered numerous questions for how to begin:

  • What in my life has given me joy?
  • How have I expressed my joy?
  • How does joy affect my experience of myself?
  • How does joy affect my relationships?
  • Do I share joy or feel shame and hide it?
  • How do I keep control of joy?
  • What spoils it?
  • What overt and covert messages did I get about joy?

Thoroughly explore your joy. Look at or think about photos, diaries and toys from when you were a child ad notice what gets evoked. Let an image come up of yourself feeling joy at any age. It may be linked to a song, poem, place, time of day, food, love, movement, sensation, fantasy, dream, anything. Notice the tiny moments when there is an absence of anxiety and depression. Kast wrote “most people have quiet joys during times they describe as joyless. In your reconstructed biography of joy, take these quiet joys quite seriously.” Psychological health depends on noticing, grasping, and tending joy.

With my clients in weekly therapy sessions, I look for sparks of joy, vitality, and hope. They can quickly flash up and disappear. The spark may be hidden in half of a sentence, a change in tone or energy, in breathing, in a wistful gaze, or pause. Sudden tears may reveal the grief over a particular lost joy or joyful time. There may be clues in a book, movie, artwork, or craft project a client mentions enjoying.

There’s even an app for cultivating joy: Gratitude Journal. In it, you can type into your phone what you are grateful for. The app compiles it for you day by day. Focusing a little bit of time each day on gratitude has been shown to decrease symptoms of depression and increase happiness for months afterward (See A Primer in Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson, 2006).

In her book Wisdom of the Psyche depth psychotherapist and mythologist Ginette Paris’s book concludes with these lines:

The tragedy and comedy, failures and victories, are not about problem solving for the living; they are life. They are the tales of existence, tales about finding joy in the midst of struggle. Joy is a better teacher than pain, always.

We can’t change the inherent pains of human life, but cultivating joy and other related feelings such as hope can sustain us through painful times. Joy opens us to connecting with others in contrast to the isolating nature of depression. Discovering what we can learn from joy can be a theme in therapy. In ongoing therapy sessions, a client and I notice, track, and explore the signals of joy, past and present. They may be subtle and elusive at first, but the sparks can be fanned into a warming, vibrant fire.

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