For this month’s “Therapists Spill” series, we wanted to know what joy looks like for clinicians. Below, they share what joy means to them, and what brings joy into their lives.
For clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, joy flourishes when he’s fully focused on a project, experience or relationship, without worries or distractions swaying his attention.
“[Joy] happens when I let go of any self-consciousness and play a song on my guitar and forget what my fingers are doing. Or get swept up in a game of basketball and play instead of thinking about playing. Or when I enter the world of my kids and completely lose track of time.”
Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist and owner of the counseling practice Urban Balance, also noted that joy comes from disengaging from time along with space and ego and engaging with her “uncensored self.” Recently, she’s experienced joy while playing with her daughters, dancing with her husband at an outdoor concert and riding a roller coaster with her best friend and their kids.
Clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, described joy as being fully present in the moment. He feels joy when he’s connected “to other people, to nature, to music or myself.” For him, like other clinicians, joy resides in the small moments of the everyday. “Sometimes, it’s just the recognition that I’m drawing breath.”
For Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., a psychotherapist, author and teacher, joy is about allowing. “I find that there are moments when the smallest things have the potential to fill me with a state of joy, yet I am not present to the moment or I am preoccupied or attached to another emotion or state of mind, and thus it dissipates. If I am in a rush or talking on the phone or fiddling with the radio, it is far less likely that I will be present for the gorgeous sunrise or sunset before me.”
He also views joy like other emotions, which have a short duration. “I recommend that we all focus on attaining a state of contentment or peace for a baseline emotional constant as this is far more realistic when it comes to daily living. Joy tends to lead to sadness when one realizes that they are no longer in the joyful place.”
Howes, author of the blog “In Therapy,” views choice as part of joy. He cited author and theologian Henri Nouwen who said: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”
Christina G. Hibbert, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist, views joy as “a deep, innate part of who we each are.” But life stressors and losses bury the joy within us. “The key to discovering joy is not going out and seeking it, but rather, digging deep within to uncover it.”
Joy is not the same as happiness. Several clinicians described joy as surpassing happiness. “Happiness is an emotion we feel when circumstances are favorable [such as] our body is rested and well-fed, we are doing something we enjoy, we get great news. Joy, on the other hand, is a state of being,” said Hibbert, author of the forthcoming memoir This Is How We Grow and an expert in women’s mental health, postpartum issues and parenting.
Joy can reside in difficult times. “Rarely are we more present and connected than we are when feeling low, in crisis, amidst loss or darkness,” said Duffy, also author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. He cited an example from Augusten Burroughs’s book This Is How, in which Burroughs writes about his life with a friend who’s dying.
According to Duffy, “In particular, [Burroughs] describes a seemingly innocuous but really powerful event in his friend’s final days. He was so weak physically that he struggled to sip water from a straw. When he finally succeeded, the ensuing celebration was nothing short of joy.”
A tough period in Serani’s life, her depression, helped her discover joy. “I know that sounds like a paradox… and in a lot of ways, it is. Surviving unspeakable sadness and staggering despair has led me to appreciate the simple things in life: the beauty of a child’s smile; the glorious colors of a sunset; wrapping my arms around a loved one I’ve missed seeing; or hearing a spectacular piece of music.”
Joy also is about being attentive. Serani stressed the importance of having a “curious, observing, inquisitive approach to life. Curiosity heightens your senses. And when your senses are amplified, you can experience positive emotions more intensely.”
All of us have access to joy. But some of us might need to work to access it. As Hibbert said, “We all have the potential to experience joy. It is part of all of us. Some of us might have to work a little harder for it, but let me tell you, it is well worth the effort!”