Where do you find joy?

I started a gratitude journal in October. Since starting it, I noticed that most of the things I’m grateful for also bring me joy. 

I really began to pay attention to joy and finding joy these past two weeks, which seemed appropriate being that it’s the Christmas season. Plus, it’s finals week in academic life, a time that is filled with activity and that isn’t usually synonymous with “joy.”

So, I asked my students, “Where do you find joy this time of year?” I have a column in the attendance sheet that students sign specifically for questions like that. I’ve been doing it for years, and it helps to build community in the classroom. 

My dog Dory doesn't wear her birthday hat. She eats it.

Students responses varied like they usually do to those questions. They made us laugh, nod in agreement, and ponder.

For them, joy included getting all As (I should have seen that one coming), going home for break, and googling “dogs wearing birthday hats.” I shared that my dog Dory doesn’t wear her birthday hat–she eats it. In doing so, she experiences joy and brings joy to all her birthday party guests who laugh in bemusement. 

But I digress.

These various responses made me wonder: What is joy, really?

Spirituality and joy go hand in hand

My spiritual mentor, Sr. Arlene, has told me on more than one occasion that Loving Energy (what I have come to call God) wants us to be happy and to be filled with joy. She even recommended the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s Book of Joy as further evidence that spirituality and joy go hand in hand. 

Then I thought about it. And her comment reminded me of a reflection I attended last week.

“Where you feel most alive”

I went to a luncheon reflection at my university’s Ignatian spirituality center for faculty and staff.  We reflected on the advent season and on the anticipation of Christmas. We first thought about what Christmas means to us and our traditions and how they’ve evolved over time. But that’s not the conversation that stuck with me.

We then reflected on how we each were a light in the world. That conversation brought forth stories of joy and gratitude.

As people shared how they saw themselves as lights in the world, my eye was drawn to a painting on the wall in our gathering space: “Whatever you are doing, that which makes you feel the most alive . . . that is where God is.” – St. Ignatius Loyola

Is joy also that which makes us feel most alive?

I paused. Is joy also that which makes us feel most alive? How do you know when you feel most alive? 

Finding joy in the final weeks of the semester

These questions are perhaps most important to ask ourselves during the end of the semester when we’re all–students, faculty, and staff–overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. Those feelings might lead us to think we’re alive, but they can be just the opposite: draining, taxing, and depleting. 

These sentiments are solidified on social media and during hallway conversations. How many times have you seen, read, or said, “How many more papers do I have to grade?” “Let the grading marathon begin. Sigh.” 

But what if we found joy in these seemingly mundane, daunting, and perhaps even dreaded tasks?

How might that change our experience of these important workplace tasks?

We can find joy when we are immersed in these activities. We just have to look for it.

For example, I held one-on-one conferences with all of my students during the last week of classes. We discussed their final papers and final portfolios. As writing teachers reading this post know, days leading up to conferences can be exhausting. They involve reading drafts and commenting on drafts, and then talking about drafts in 15-, 20-, or 30-minute conferences.

I expected to be drained, taxed, and depleted that week. 

I experienced the opposite. 

I felt energized when working one-on-one with students. We discussed their papers and portfolios, but we also were able to talk about life outside of class. This part of the conversation was particularly important for my first-year students who were experiencing their first finals week and were struggling with energy management.

It turned out to be important for me, too, because it brought me joy. It brought me joy because of the connection and community we built during our time together. I looked forward to the next meeting, and although I was physically tired when that last conference started, my energy was renewed as the student and I discussed revision plans for the final portfolio.   

My point with this entry isn’t that everyone needs to conference with students. It’s that we might find joy during stressful times if we pay attention to where we feel most alive even when we’re at our most tired. 

And maybe that’s one way to think of joy: Doing the things and being with the people (and pets) that make us feel truly alive, energized, renewed, and connected with humanity.

Questions to ponder

  • What is joy for you?
  • Where, when, and how do you feel joyful? How do you know?
  • If you don’t feel joyful in certain areas of your life (work, home, etc.), what changes might you make to experience joy?
  • Do you feel joy in your spiritual life? How, where, and when?
  • How might you bring joy to others?
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