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On Happiness (And Joy)

This week’s Friday Five comes to us courtesy of that wondrous Green Booger, Laura:

For the past few years I’ve been compromising my hopes for a career and job I enjoy in preference to work a job that can relocate me to different countries and cultures. The exchange hasn’t really paid off as I’ve spent a lot of time feeling miserable about the job.

However, I’m about to play a gamble, which, if it pays off, wouldn’t only get me to work into an exotic culture (namely Asia) and in a job which I actually want to do. If it fails, I will be jobless, homeless and penniless. But the point is, I believe the possible benefits are worth the risk.

So in a true oriental spirit, my question is this: Name five ways to bring happiness to your life. Explain how you would go about to achieve them; what would you be willing to risk – and will you?

Now that’s a question. Risk and happiness: I think that there actually is always a degree of risk that we take when we pursue happiness. That’s part of the deal. If we live comfortably, we never grow or develop and tjhe fact is that for a certain segment of humanity it’s not comfort but growth, learning, and developing ourselves that makes us happy.

I think that’s why there’s a saying that exhorts us as follows: “Do something that scares you every day.” Confucius said that a man who finds work he loves never works a day in his life, but it’s not true. A person who finds work that he or she loves works like a dog (nearly) every day and feels replenished by the exertion. That person finds joy, and it’s boundless.

Wait a minute, I’ve switched from “happiness” to “joy”. Did you notice that? Suddenly I’m writing about joy. That’s a rather different proposition, isn’t it? Yes, but I think it’s what this question is really about. For me happiness is drab, suffused by things and circumstances, where joy is something more like a process, a way of relating, and a way of understanding life. That’s what I go for, and it involves a big risk.

Why? Because it means changing course, for most of us. I remember a professor of mine explaining that Chinese life was traditionally a bell curve slope, where on the way up one internalized the rules and boundaries of Confucian society, and then, after reaching middle-age or so, declining down the curve, one learned to break free of all of that and internalize the intuition and naturalness of Lao Tzu’s teachings. (It occurs to me that, as far as I know, Lao Tzu is not so popular in Korea. May explain a few things.)

Anyway, that leap from following the rules, listening to your inner self once it’s so tempered by society that you’re still not apt to run wild, is a difficult thing for some of us. Yet it seems to me it’s crucial. It’s perhaps the central step in this life for many of us.

Risk, and benefit. I think the funny thing about risk is that it’s always something we imagine, and that we often enough mistakenly estimate risks. The real risks in life are different from what we anticipate. The real risk of love is not rejection, but of a long happy life together, and then the pain of losing the person you love. The risk of starting a business is not failure, but too much success for you to handle. The risk of moving somewhere is not getting lost, but losing yourself in that place. And sometimes, even, the thing we thought was a risk, turns out to be the best benefit. A marriage’s failure, the crashing of a business, the turning away from a long-held dream, can sometimes be an immense blessing, the thing that turns you straight onto your path. Sometimes it’s the thing we fear worst that we must endure, and sometimes it’s the very thing that launches us in exactly the direction we need to go.

As for me, I am determined now to keep joy in my heart. Having tasted it, finally, it feels like flying; it’s the lightness in the heart of a traveler, and the nervousness of an awkward lover taking his beloved into his arms for the first time. It feels like sitting on the side of the mountain at night, flute in hand, playing for nobody in mind, and staring into the glittering heavens of stars. It’s also the fit of a quartet of drummers locking their beats together perfectly. It’s really the most important thing, joy is.

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