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Wishing you a happy or a joyful Christmas?

When we write our Christmas cards, the choice may seem irrelevant. Particularly in the rush to complete another job. However, with a little reflection on the difference between happiness and joy, we may begin to recognise something quite key for our capacity to appreciate and enjoy this season.


I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s book, The Atlas of the Heart. I'll use her summary of the differences to frame my thoughts.




What’s are these two experiences?


Brené Brown writes:


  • Joy is “an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure and appreciation”.

  • Happiness is a “feeling of pleasure often related to the immediate environment or current circumstances.”


We can see, immediately, the value of both and, indeed, how Christmas offers the opportunity for both. The religious rituals and sense can invite us into joy. The reunions of families and friends, the festivities, the food can be the circumstances surrounding happiness.


But there is more behind this. After all, we don’t always feel either of these at Christmas time.


What is behind these two experiences?


Brené Brown notes:


  • Joy is “more internal”, whereas

  • Happiness is “more self-focussed” and “we feel a sense of being in control.”


This at first glance may seem confusing. How is joy more internal but happiness more self-focussed? Aren't they the same thing? Here’s my reflections on the two.


Joy wells up from within us but expands our awareness, attention and pleasure in, perhaps, all directions. We feel connection from within, from our very selves, to others, nature, God and the Universe, and so almost forget the self.


Almost forget. Here, it’s useful to use the concept of ego: that part of us that helps us function, plan, think through, negotiate, find our way through reality, as well as worry, manipulate, control and act. The ego, rather than being destroyed or forgotten completely seems, instead, to quietly step down from taking the lead. It's as if it’s saying, ‘This isn’t my place or time to be in charge. I’m going to take a beach seat andenjoy the experience.”


Thus joy has a far greater sense of receptiveness and giftedness. This allows for its spontaneity. We recognise, ‘I didn’t make this happen and I can’t control it. I can only participate in it; only be present to it.’


Now, when we are anxious about all the Christmas preparations or expectations, or managing relationships dynamics or what to buy as presents - then the ego cannot take that step back. It must be in control. Unfortunately, this is at the cost of being present to joy.


Happiness, however, is about a situation or circumstance I am in and over which I feel a sense of control. It is often the result of effort. The ego is in the lead here: the ego helped bring the situation about and is keeping it together. If successful, then w can feel happy: ‘Everyone is having a good time. They liked the presents I chose. They enjoyed my joke. The food was tasty. I’ve done a good job!’


For which to wish?


Brené Brown wonders whether the pursuit of happiness can prevent us from the conditions in which we might experience joy: “what makes [us] happy in the moment is not always what leads [us] to developing deeper joy, grounded confidence and meaningful connection.” I agree with this. And I would add the converse: the pursuit of joy may mean we never develop the conditions in which we might experience happiness. Here’s why.


Firstly, in agreement: the short-term, external focus of happiness can make it an quick, easy and convenient escape from our deeper, darker feelings of hurt, shame, guilt, grief and loneliness. The food, alcohol or festivities become a cover-up. We ignore, deny it distort our deeper feelings which, often, are necessary parts of more meaningful experiences. Bring absent to this weekend of our self makes us absent to joy. For such people - and I often find myself here - I wish the joy of connecting with someone or something beyond ourselves that relieves our shame just enough to give us the hope we need to engage with these parts of us and trust that we will survive.


Secondly, again in agreement: the self-focus, ego-led, control-needing nature of happiness can be a cover up for anxiety or deeper fears. We are too busy trying to control the environment to enjoy what the environment we've made can offer us. For such people, and again I see myself here often, I wish the joy of experiencing what is beyond our control.


However, there is also the converse: there is a risk of over-spiritualising joy and making happiness inferior. Then, the dangers of pursuing joy cannot be seen and the possibility of happiness is never realised. For many people, they struggle to feel any stable sense of happiness because they have no stable sense of personal power. There may be many good reasons for developing this sense as a way to survive. However, this means that the capacity for happiness is seriously undermined, for happiness includes a quality of being in control and of having put in effort to make it so, which the person will struggle to find the resources for. Such a person at Christmas may go along with things, may hope for a nice time, but feel no agency over the situation to change it. They feel at the mercy of others.


Such a person, if they also have religious or spiritual sense, may still feel deep and meaningful joy at Christmas. But these experiences may be, in effect, their own sort of escape. The experiences may be coloured with a common feeling of being unworthy and needing to be, or being, rescued, aligning with their general sense of shame, inadequacy or powerlessness. 


For such a person, and again I have found myself here, I wish for happiness. The happiness of an ego realising (or releasing!) its power to influence, impact and even interrupt the external situation to align more with one’s needs, desires and values. This too would be a wonderful thing.


Christmas offers us the opportunity for both happiness and joy. It offers us the opportunity for ego practice and it offers us the opportunity for receiving experiences bursting with meaning and connection. Of course, unhappiness, powerlessness, frustration, loneliness, grief and shame may, even will, be a part of our experience too. Reality always is this. But if we know that happiness and joy are not found in running from these experiences, and that each can be a form of escape from the other, then we can find a new balance and perhaps new experiences this Christmas.


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