The lost art of joy – Just what is joy?

Robin Williams is my favourite all time comedian. At his best, his jokes would come flying out faster than what my brain could process them, but I still found myself laughing pre—cognitively and only understanding why I was laughing once my brain had a chance to catch up. He was famous for his talent for improvisational comedy, something he demonstrated one night for a group of budding actors, using nothing but a pink scarf.

And yet, despite being one of the funniest people in history, he was plagued by depression and drug abuse and died by suicide in 2014.

In an interview after his death, James Lipton poignantly described Robin Williams,

“In the end, Robin is Pagliacci. He is Pagliacci, the cliche of the clown who cries – that was there every single minute, every single minute of his life, and what he did was he spared us the hard part, and he gave us the joy. What an extraordinary gift that was.”

It’s hard to understand how someone can be so seemingly full of joy, or at the very least, give so much joy to others, and still be so plagued with melancholy and psychological pain. The life and death of Robin Williams certainly challenges our understanding of the true meaning of joy.

So it’s pertinent to ask: What is joy?

Is joy laughter? Is it pleasure? Is joy the same as happiness? Is joy the absence of sadness? Is it the absence of suffering? Is joy within us, or outside our control? The answer is probably a combination of all of these things.

My dictionary explains that joy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness”. The ancient Greeks considered that joy had two different parts – physical pleasures associated with biological needs, and feelings of higher pleasure. Physical pleasures, such as eating and sex, are known as ‘hedonia’ while the higher feelings of pleasure, associated with the appreciation of art, music, et cetera, as ‘eudaimonia’ (‘a life well lived’) after the distinction that Aristotle made in his writings on the subject.

Is joy the same as happiness or pleasure? C. S. Lewis didn’t think so, “I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

George Bernard Shaw considered joy to be something greater than oneself, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

It’s certainly true that depressed people can still laugh, and like Robin Williams, can make others laugh, so joy can certainly be both superficial and deep, and neither are mutually exclusive.

To add something else into the mix, the Christmas message of joy comes from the birth of the Saviour (Luke 2:10-12), so one of the Biblical meanings of joy stems from hope.

So the single definitive concept of true joy is elusive. Perhaps trying to define joy is like trying to define the ocean. We have all experienced the ocean and its beauty, and many of us have felt the coolness on our bodies as we have swam in it, or felt the awesome power of its currents and waves. Yet the ocean is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend it for itself.

We have all experienced the wonder and beauty of joy, although it is so deep, so powerful and so mysterious that no one can ever truely comprehend joy.

Not that it will every stop us from trying.

~~~
If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:

In Australia:
Lifeline ~ 13 11 14
BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

USA:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand:
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354

UK:
Samaritans ~ 116 123

For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

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Dr Caroline Leaf – It’s no joke

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So, stop me if you’ve heard this one … This guy walks into a bar, and says, “Owww, that bar is really hard.”

Ok, that was a bad joke. Hey, I’m no Robin Williams. Some people have the knack of being able to make people laugh in almost any situation. I can get a few laughs, but I’m not a naturally gifted comic.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She isn’t a comedian either.

Her post today was a light-hearted dig at giant lizards with a taste for organic free-range humans, or perhaps the fact that most people know being “all organic, gluten free” should be left to the sanctimonious foodies of San Francisco.

The other part of her post wasn’t meant to be funny, but certainly contained a healthy dose of irony. In trying to justify her bit of light comic relief, she posted another of her subtly erroneous factoids, this time claiming that, “Laughing 100-200 times a day is equal to 10 minutes of rowing or jogging!”

Not according to real scientists, who have worked out that laughing is actually the metabolic equivalent to sitting still at rest, while jogging or rowing burns between 6 to 23 times as much energy, depending on how fast you run or row [1].

That would mean that I would have to laugh for at least a whole hour a day (or about 700 times based on the average chortle) to be even close to the energy burnt by a light jog.

On the grand scale of things, this meme probably doesn’t really matter. These sort of factoids are thrown around on social media all the time, and it won’t make a big difference to the health and wellbeing of most people. But it does help establish a pattern. Dr Leaf habitually publishes memes and factoids that clearly deviate from the scientific truth, proving that Dr Leaf has become a cross between a science fiction author and life coach, not a credible scientific expert. From her social media memes to her TV shows, all of her teaching becomes tainted as untrustworthy.

While today’s meme may not be so serious, if Dr Leaf can’t get her facts straight, pretty soon the joke will be on her.

References

  1. Ainsworth, B.E., et al., 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities: a second update of codes and MET values. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2011. 43(8): 1575-81 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31821ece12

Looking backward, moving forwards

I used to think that with each new year, I was getting wiser.

In reality, I’m probably just getting older … like sun-baked plastic, slowly growing more rigid, cracked and brittle with each passing day. Which is why I no longer blog about subjects like the eleven steps to self-attainment or the seven habits of highly effective nose pickers, or new years resolutions in three easy payments. Call me a grumpy old man, but I’ve been down that road. Hey, if it lights your candle, then I wish you all the best. But to everyone else, if you’re happy to humour a cantankerous old sceptic, I’d like to share my musings on a year that was more morbid than magical.

2014 was quite a year. After suffering from depression for most of the three previous years, I was hoping that 2014 was going to be a year of consolidation. It turned out quite the opposite. I celebrated a birthday milestone with a party that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and is still remembered fondly by those who could. That, and I published my second book. In terms of highlights, that was it.

Otherwise, it was a year of adversity. Nearly every one of my family members was in hospital this year at some point. And death came for my wife’s mum, Robin Williams, the cricketer Phillip Hughes, and everyday heroes like Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe siege. In late October, I nearly lost my wife. Many of my friends suffered untold tragedies too.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, 2014 was a tough year. In the shower this morning, where I get all of my best thinking done, I was contemplating the year that was, and how I was going to move forward. 2014 had left me emotionally bruised and bleeding, and I will carry some of the scars forever. Though while I may be broken, in many ways, that’s not such a bad thing. Brokenness changes your perspective. I’m more grateful for my family. I can empathise on a deeper level with my patients in their distress. I’ve come to understand the wilderness experience of the soul.

I’ve come to realise that goals without deeper values undergirding them are vacuous and futile.

I have a deeper understanding of the grace of God, who despite my brokenness, misery and existential despair, was holding me up and bringing me through. He was my lifeguard, keeping my head above water, swimming me to shore.

Hmmm, perhaps I’m not as rigid or as brittle as I thought.

In 2015, I won’t be making any silly resolutions trying to better myself, because in being broken, I can finally see what’s truly valuable in my life. I may be limping, but at least I’m finally limping in the right direction.

If you’re broken and limping too, let’s limp together into a new year that is richer and more fulfilling than the last.

The pain and gain of grief

Floral tribute to the Sydney siege victims, at Martin Place, Sydney

Floral tribute to the Sydney siege victims, at Martin Place, Sydney

In many ways, 2014 hasn’t been the best of years, unless you’re a florist.

A dear friend of mine recently went through an unimaginable personal loss, but politely requested that no one send her flowers, because the unintentional metaphor of receiving something beautiful that soon withered and died simply reminded her of what she had lost. Not that I could have given her flowers anyway – it seems like all of Australia’s bouquets have been laid in Martin Place.

The siege in the Lindt Cafe was an assault on Australia’s national psyche as much as it was an attack on a small café in the CBD of Sydney, and marks a highpoint of suffering in the midst of several tragedies back to back. Soon after the tragic events in Martin Place, news came of the murder of eight children from the one family in Cairns. Two weeks before, we were rocked by the sudden death of cricketer, Phil Hughes.

Like many, many others in the last few weeks, I’ve felt that discombobulating mix of sadness, compassion, anxiety, and numbness (and many other feelings) that accompanies loss. I was grieving.

Grief is not fun. There are a wide variety of ways in which people grieve, of course, though grief is rarely described as joyous. Rather than being the five stages of grief that used to be dutifully learned by every medical and psychology student, grief is now considered a mish-mash of nearly every different emotion that a human can experience, for different lengths of time, at different intensities, in different patterns. Like your fingerprint, your emotional pattern of adapting to loss is as individual as you are. I felt helpless at the news from my close friend, shock at the death of Phil Hughes, and anxious when thinking about the Lindt Café. Each tragedy was also accompanied by a deep sadness.

As well as being emotionally draining, the process of grieving can have physical effects as well, associated with high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine release and the changes that are associated with that (O’Connor, Irwin & Wellisch, 2009). Pro-inflammatory cytokines are also released because of physical stress or infection, so grief would physically feel like you have the flu, which is probably why grieving makes you feel physically awful as well as mentally distraught.

As awful as these feelings are, they are important to our healing and restoration. Grief functions as a way of helping us adjust to life on the other side of our loss. Like our body has to heal and adapt to physical wounds, grief helps us heal and adapt emotionally. Grief is not a disease, but a normal process that everyone experiences at one point or another.

Some authors teach that negative feelings and emotions are toxic, or that the outcome of different stresses in our life is dependent on our personal choices. If there was ever a case-in-point of the benefit of “negative” emotions, and why the outcome of stressful events is not entirely under our control, it’s grief. Grieving is a process which, by definition, is distressing. The storms of painful emotion roll through us, triggered and controlled by our subconscious brain, with our conscious mind along for the ride. As distressing as those emotions can be, they are not ‘negative’ emotions, but the process of healing,

At times of intense sorrow, we can try and ‘help’ those who are grieving by telling them how they should feel, or what they should do, but during times of grief, being too directional is usually not helpful. The blog today is more general in nature because I don’t want to try and push one particular way of grieving over another. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

My Physical Education teacher often used to say, “No pain, no gain.” Actually, it was more barking through his megaphone, trying to make me run faster in my cross-country race. It may seem an odd match, but the principle applies here too. If you are feeling the sadness and loss over the Lindt Café, Phil Hughes, Robin Williams, or any other personal loss you may have experienced, it’s ok to feel the distress. The pain is hard. The feelings are raw, and they are real. But you will get through them, and they will help you to experience the joy in life again.

I am coming to terms with each of these different tragedies in my own way. Lets pray that 2015 is a much better year.

If you are struggling and don’t know where to go to talk or find assistance, see your GP or psychologist, visit BeyondBlue (http://www.beyondblue.org.au), or the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (http://www.grief.org.au).

If you want to donate to the funds or foundations set up in honour of the Sydney siege victims, please go to http://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-involved/make-a-donation or http://thekatrinadawsonfoundation.org.

References

O’Connor, M.-F., Irwin, M. R., & Wellisch, D. K. (2009). When grief heats up: Proinflammatory cytokines predict regional brain activation. NeuroImage, 47(3), 891–896. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.049