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Want joy? Be grateful... and question our culture.

What are some of the hardest things to acknowledge about joy? Probably that it is fleeting, and requires vulnerability to experience it. Our culture hasn’t really prepared us well for either of these conditions.

Our culture wants happiness to last “ever after,” viewing impermanence as a problem that needs to be solved rather than accepted. Simultaneously, we are conditioned to be emotionally risk averse to our feelings, choosing to callous-up rather than lean into vulnerability. But can we find joy in with this cultural programming? The truth is… not under these conditions.

I experienced this first hand after decades of trying to be too cool for my emotions, while also constantly looking for joy and happiness to fulfill me. Instead of finding joy or happiness, I disconnected from both and got mired down in sarcasm, bitterness, and jealousy. When I was exposed to joy, the vulnerability required to be present in those moments, was actually painful.

I felt silly enjoying the simplicity of a calm moment in nature. I thought living in wonder made me uncool. And to make this worse, I actively teased and pushed away people and experiences that were joyful. And still I searched for joy, wondering why I wasn’t feeling it, questioning if joy was a mythical emotion, and becoming more and more jaded in the journey.

The truth is joy is fleeting, and cannot be a sustained permanent state, no matter how hard we try. The only way to extend a joyful moment is to be present in it- and for many of us this can feel impossible. We have not been conditioned to slow down and observe the simple moments. In fact many of us receive cultural messages that push us in the opposite direction. Be productive! Slowing down = lazy. Tender = weak. We are told our feelings are liabilities rather than authentic calls to action. It is almost impossible to just enjoy joy these days, when our attention spans can’t last beyond the duration of a 30 second viral video.

The result is a population of joy adverse adults, who look at joy the same way a teenager looks at a magic trick. We’ve become too cool for it. We are more focused on dissecting, “how the trick worked,” instead of just experiencing the wonder of the moment- and we lose our connection with joy and with ourselves every time. The glib veneer we apply to these moments, gives us an inauthentic endorsement of our behavior, while leaving us internally empty and searching. We consume, criticize, and become cool- none of which leads us towards the joy we’re seeking.

We also struggle culturally with impermanence and this can be a shot to the heart of joy. Rather than having a culture that promotes the virtues of embracing change and allows us to connect in grief, we practice avoidance through consumerism, distraction, and numbing. When we attempt to manipulate the longevity of our joy and our pain, we usually discover the only thing we’ve managed to create is more of our own dissatisfaction. Worse, when we do have a brief moment of joy many of us inject thoughts of tragedy to avoid the vulnerability that comes with it. Accepting that joy is fleeting requires us to stay present when joy shows up and honor the moment with gratitude… and for many of us, this work is completely foreign and runs counter to what we have been conditioned to believe.

So what does all this mean for those of us looking to incorporate more joy into our lives?

It means we need to be willing to challenge our own culture. We need to question how much our consumption brings us joy, and observe how often we pull ourselves out of joyful moments because they require us to be vulnerable and present.

We also need to be willing to hold space for those in our lives who bring us joy, even when they are in pain. The practice of sharing empathy with those we love will not only usher in the healing we need to move past pain, but we may also be gifted tender moments of joy along the way.

If joy is something we want to cultivate we must be willing to examine our relationship with vulnerability and step into the discomfort of it. We must be willing to stay present in joyful moments by acknowledging our gratitude. And we must accept that like all things in life, joy does not last forever, but we can develop a practice of joy that gives us a variety of joyful experiences… and the practice of joy, when we commit to it, can last us a lifetime.

Photo Credit: Howl & Rose

Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In, a soft skills development company. All Hands In specializes in soft skill development using play and puppetry. If you'd like to learn more about the work she does please visit: or email her at

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