I attended a church sermon once where the pastor talked about joy as an active state of being that you choose to experience, not just an emotion or a feeling. That's certainly contrary to the dictionary definition above. I'd always thought of joy as an emotion. And I'd always thought of emotions as feelings that happen to you as a result of external surroundings; something that you can't control. How could I choose to feel joy? If an external stimulus causes me to feel joy, then I feel joyful. If that stimulus is absent, I don't feel joyful. Whether you subscribe to any specific religious belief or not, this is a generally accepted way of understanding emotions.
So I left church that day and didn't really think much of it. Fast forward a few months. As part of a work assignment, I joined a missionary group and traveled to Kawete, Uganda—a small, rural village in one of the poorest countries in the world. My assignment was to write about a character formation curriculum being used in the primary school in the community.
As part of my assignment, I gathered a small focus group of teachers to talk about their experiences using the curriculum and teaching character virtues to the school children. At some point, our discussion turned to diligence and our ability (and responsibility) to persist in doing hard things. I asked the teachers how they demonstrated diligence in their lives, and how they persist through doing hard things. One teacher told me that even though it's difficult to teach in a classroom with dirt floors, little resources, no climate control, and her newborn baby on her back all day while she's teaching, she chooses to do her job with joy and enthusiasm. There it was again, that concept of choosing to feel joy.
I wrapped up my discussion with the teachers, struck by how happy and joyful everyone seemed to be, while I was feeling a different range of emotions. I was feeling a little bit annoyed by my second day of triple digit heat and no relief from the sun, a bit of exhaustion from travel and jet lag, and a whole lot of sadness for the children I was meeting who lived in such extreme poverty. This was my first trip outside the comfort of my own country, aside from some tropical beach vacations surrounded by the bubble of a fancy resort. I was reacting to external surroundings that I wasn't used to experiencing.
Meanwhile, I had been gone from home for about 2 days, and I hadn't spoken more than a few words or text messages with my husband who was back home. I came back to the hotel that evening after the teacher discussion feeling all my feelings, and settled into bed. The next day was Saturday, a full day of worship in the community. We'd be in church for most of the day.
Early Saturday morning, about 5 a.m. local time, my phone rang and I saw my husband's name flash across the screen. A little bit of joy crept up as I felt grateful for the international cell phone plan I had purchased, and excited to finally talk to my husband after several days. As soon as I heard my husband's voice though, I could tell something was wrong. My little spark of joy flamed out as my husband informed me that his best friend, a person who I'd known all my life and considered to be part of our family, had been killed in a motorcycle accident. My husband hadn't been answering my phone calls for 2 days because he didn't want to tell me that our friend was gone. He didn't want to ruin my trip.
If you've ever experienced the loss of a close loved one, you probably know that gut-wrenching, stomach in your throat feeling that came over me. I hunched over on the bed and let out a half-cry, half-scream that woke up my roommate (who I'd just met two days earlier). I got off the phone with my husband and immediately contacted the airline to arrange for the next flight home. Unfortunately, when you're in one of the most remote parts of the world, travel doesn't often happen quickly. The earliest flight I could get on was 17 hours later. It would take me a 6 hour van ride, two international flights, one domestic flight and a very expensive shower in an airline lounge before I'd get home to be with my husband. Even worse, I'd have to wait 10 hours or so before I could even start my journey. My choices were to spend 10 hours in my hotel room by myself, crying and obsessing over not being home with my husband, or to pull myself together and spend the day worshiping in the village with the rest of the group.
I know myself well enough to know that sitting alone wasn't going to do me any good. So I wiped my tears, downed a cup of coffee and got on the bus to head to church. I sobbed the entire way there. I let a stranger hold me in the bus seat and I cried into her shoulder, soaking her church dress and probably getting some snot on her, too. She patted my head and said something in Lugandan that I didn't understand.
If you've never been to an East African church service, it is absolutely a transcendental experience. The service lasted for most of the day, and there was singing and chanting and dance, and so much joy. At one point, a very old woman (in all honestly I have no idea how old she was, but it seemed to me like she must have been at least 100) came up to me and smiled, but both of her hands on either side of my face and sang something to me in Lugandan that I again didn't understand. But her face, her smile, sent a message that was beyond language. Her face was pure joy. The younger woman next to her put her baby in my arms and started clapping to the music. And in that instant, I understood what it meant to choose to feel joy. I was having one of the worst days of my life. I was feeling grief and pain like you can only feel from the loss of a dear loved one. But I realized that I could also choose to feel joy. In that moment, even though I was feeling all sorts of other emotions, I chose to feel joy. I chose to embrace whatever message that old woman was trying to send me, and I smiled with her. And I clapped with the baby. And danced with the other women in the room. And then, I understood what the pastor had been trying to tell us all those months earlier.
For me, it was a religious experience. But it doesn't have to be. The act of choosing joy is simply a matter of taking control of the situation you're in, and choosing how to react in the moment. It's possible (and totally okay) to feel more than one emotion simultaneously. So even though I was grieving, scared, and confused and angry, I chose to focus on all the things that were good in the world at that moment. Smiling old ladies. Clapping babies. The sound of the music surrounding me. Dancing.
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you're feeling something other than joyful, take a minute to focus inside yourself and choose to feel joy about something. Your joy isn't dependent on your circumstances. It's completely within your control. If you find yourself struggling with this concept, that's okay. It can take some practice. Try one of our Three Good Things or Gratitude Journal exercises and bring your mind to the things in your life that bring you joy, even during the worst of times. Then sit with those things for a few moments of meditation and see how you feel. It will get easier with practice.