Awakening to Joy

Liverpool FC PL Trophy Lift

Dear Dartmouth,

My father calls me his “melancholy one.” Looking back through family photos, it’s easy to see why. Even as a child, pictures of me reading or lost in thought look natural – almost as if they’re a true expression of my inner world. By contrast, pictures where I’m smiling look more forced and uncertain, as if I’m not quite sure how to show others I’m happy. This discrepancy is even more obvious in photos with my younger brother, the “happy one.” My RMF (resting melancholy face, or resting “meh” face for short) is all the more apparent next to his effortless smile that can light up any room.

So it’s been interesting (to say the least) for me to engage with the Student Wellness Center (SWC) theme of “Joy and Playfulness” over the past couple weeks. While my role at the SWC is focused on helping students cultivate positive human capacities for wellbeing, challenging myself to make space for direct experiences of joy and moments of play in my own life is altogether different. It has had a lot to do with “practicing what I preach.”

At the SWC, we teach a process of reflection, connection, intention, and action as a way to enhance wellbeing. After several weeks of placing my attention on joy and playfulness, I have found myself reflecting on where and how these elements are present in my life and looking for clues as to their source. As I’ve become more aware of how I experience joy, it has encouraged me to connect more fully with the things that produce that feeling. And as I have realized that these experiences bring good things to my life and the lives of those around me, it has made it more compelling to be intentional about making space for joy and time for playful action.

Here are a couple examples of where joy has been showing up in my life so far:

  1. There is no sport I enjoy watching more than soccer. There is no league or cup I follow more avidly than the English Premier League. And there’s no club, team, or side I am more passionate about than Liverpool Football Club (LFC). I became a fan in 2015 and have been astounded at how my commitment to supporting this team has grown over the past 5 years. And this year, LFC had a season to remember, culminating with them lifting the championship trophy for the first time in 30 years.This year, the Premier League season was extended due to a break caused by the global pandemic. During the early challenges of navigating the pandemic, one consistent ray of sunshine and hope in my life came from a series of team training sessions that LFC recorded on Zoom and shared on their  social media. While these interactions between players and coaches would  never have been visible to the public under normal circumstances, this year the LFC global community were treated to recordings of team rituals and routines. I learned that when players have a birthday, the other team members take turns singing “Happy Birthday” in their primary languages as a way to bond and build respect for the diverse cultures that make up the team. They were also very skilled at making jokes about changing hairstyles in the absence of access to barbershops. And I was moved to read about Jordan Henderson, the team captain, leading a league-wide effort to funnel financial support from players and teams to their local communities. In other words, I connected, in ways I never had before, with the players and managers as PEOPLE.When the league competition resumed (in empty stadiums for the sake of safety), I rediscovered the joy of watching this team do what they do best: playing soccer. I realized I was less interested in the outcome of the matches, and more grateful to see the simple, yet extraordinary skills on display. So when they lifted the cup to celebrate their accomplishments, my happiness was more FOR each of the players and the fact that they had been able to achieve this together, in their own inimitable style.
  1. If you’ve never heard the laughter of a 2 year old, I highly recommend you check it out. My daughter, Josie has a laugh that lights up everything that is good in me, and I’ve noticed that as I’ve set my sights on joy and playfulness, it has freed me up to simply be with her and enjoy her for who she is, right now. One recent morning, I had the thought that we should try hiking together. I spent time packing snacks, lathering sunscreen on every exposed patch of her skin, choosing shoes and filling water bottles, and wondering whether any of this was worth the effort.The second we made it to the trailhead, she took off like a shot, smiling and laughing as she ran through the woods. Fortunately, she has short legs, so it’s not too tough to keep up, But even so, I felt an ever-growing sense of wonder as she went further and further on the trail on her own power. Finally, after about a mile of walking (with one very important stop to “touch the water” in the nearby river) she finally said, “Papa carry you” so I tossed her up on my shoulders, where she then amused herself by drumming complex percussion meters on my head and trying to pull out my hair in clumps.

    Time outdoors has also reconnected me with my love of nature and my ability to find beauty in the natural order of things. We have been exploring the lakes of Vermont and New Hampshire as a family this summer, and this has reminded me that there is a wholly different world that only opens up to you when you make the choice to relax and let go. Lakes have been called the ‘eyes of the world’ and when swim out and float on your back, you can see things from the perspective of those eyes. In the stillness of the water, I have watched osprey and dragonflies moving through the trees and the grasses along the lakeshore. And even though there have been other people around, during these quiet moments it has felt as though I was on my own, at peace in a world without troubles. Even if this feeling is only for a moment, it offers a perspective that bring a feeling of contentment that is otherwise challenging to find these days.

While these experiences do not represent the sum total of the joy and playfulness that has made up my past month, they each represent a moments of clarity that have helped me to reflect on and better understand what brings me joy.

For starters, I think that joy is closely connected to wonder for me. Joy involves giving my attention to something, in the present moment. It has elements of curiosity and mindfulness, but also something like awe. Joy comes when I’m able to let go of a need to understand something and simply be with it, allowing what I don’t understand to make the experience transcendent rather than frustrating. It also comes through relationship. Joy can be as present for me through the joy of others as it can through my own experience, and sometimes it’s not an either/or – it’s a shared bliss that enriches everyone involved.

I’m learning that joy is more accessible when I am intentional about noticing it. Joy can get bulldozed by busy-ness or marginalized out by the story we tell ourselves about our lives. Making space in the narrative of my life for joy made a difference in my ability to be aware of the moments when it showed up and offered itself to me. And while it can be helpful for me to take some initiative, I’m not sure joy can ultimately be planned for or executed successfully. Instead, I’ve come to believe that we can create opportunities for joy, and from there, our work is simply to be present, noticing when it appears and following where it leads.

These take-aways are my own. I do not think of them as a prescriptive checklist. Instead, I’ve come to think of joy as something that is distinctive for each of us. You may not care about soccer, kids, or nature, but there may be other experiences that engage your appreciation for beauty and excellence in a way that awakens your own sense of wonder and joy. Whether this feels intuitive for you or not, I challenge you to keep being reflective, connecting with sources of joy, and finding ways to take intentional action toward making more space for those sources in your life.

Joy may not be the end-all, be-all reason for existence. But it’s a wonderful reminder of what makes life worth living.

Wishing you abundant joy, wherever and however it appears in your life,