Creating Joy with Non-Judgment
Joy is light. Joy is wonder. It is fuel for life’s next adventure. And, it is also sometimes hard to unearth. For me, joy has always been elusive. Gratitude is in my bones, and a day rarely goes by when I am not aware of something to be grateful for. But, joy, not so much. Joy feels more like an aspiration than something I know well. It turns out there are reasons for this and things we can all do to increase the probability that we will experience joy more frequently.
“Joy is appreciative, more like viewing a beautiful, engaging painting than deliberately deciding something is worthwhile. Joy is not the result of effortful striving … [it] leaps forth when a deep desire is suddenly and sometimes inexplicably completed, a desire or a quest that is considered crucial to one’s own flourishing.” C. M. Meadows
Joy is a pleasant, embodied experience that often arises when one is positively surprised by an outcome. I felt joy (and pride) when I realized I would complete grad school and become the first person in my family to do so (yes, this surprised me!). Joy also arises in the quietude of the familiar when the heart is warmed by an intimate moment. Almost every time I am alone with an infant, this happens for me. The simplicity and the dependability of their authenticity thrill me.
The emotion of joy feels light both in the body and the visual field. Research shows that it is not uncommon for the world around us to become more vibrant when joyful. The energy that brightens the world also affects the body and mind. It is believed that this more expansive mental state also improves creativity. It is safe to say that joy is a vital part of a life well-lived.
To me, joy feels most closely aligned with awe. From a spiritual perspective, what would differentiate the two might be the sense that a universal force has influenced one’s experience.
Perhaps awe feels even broader or absolute than joy. Or, maybe it’s just semantics.
Unlike some emotions, we cannot summon joy. We can lay the foundation for it like we might prepare the soil and environment for a flourishing garden. But, when and if the garden blooms can sometimes be obscure. One of the ways we can prepare is by recognizing how we evaluate our environment and ourselves.
Nonjudgement might sound like an abstruse spiritual concept, but it is really quite simple. Instead of filtering experience through the lens of opinion, we observe. Rather than knowing, we approach life with curiosity and openness to the meaning that may naturally emerge.
We grow up learning to judge our environment and the people in it. From a survival point of view, this makes sense. Certainly, as parents, we want our children to be able to discern danger from safety. Beyond safety questions, accurately judging one’s environment is efficient (and gives a sense of control, albeit false). The quicker we can know if something is worthwhile, the more time we save on things that are not.
There are several problems with navigating life this way. Firstly, most of us fail to reevaluate. We decide we do not like coconut and don’t taste it again for twenty years only to discover we love it. That’s a silly example, but losing important relationships or deciding, say, you aren’t good at school or dating or marriage, are profoundly impactful judgments to hold onto beyond their truth. It’s essential to well-being to look at our judgments and make sure we still agree with them. Otherwise, we wind up living in an ever-smaller world.
The second challenge is depending too much on our evaluations. Most parents are very good at teaching their kids to evaluate. We aren’t all so great at teaching curiosity and learning to trust enough to explore the world with genuine innocence. That’s too bad because that is exactly where joy lives.
Lastly, the challenge with living this way is that we are wrong most of the time. Something happens, and we make a multitude of determinations based on that one (or few) experiences when they may not apply in other situations. Unfortunately, we tend to see what we anticipate seeing, so when we operate out of a set of presumptions about how things will turn out, that is what happens often.
How Judgments Block Joy
Judgment blocks joy by predefining outcomes based on what you believe. Prescribing what you see blinds you to the opportunity for spontaneous, joyful moments. The habit of constant evaluation consumes free energy that might otherwise be available to feel joy for others or ourselves. Because joy, by definition, is often the result of something unexpected, being attached to being right and being certain about the way things are blocks it.
We block joy by believing that something should be other than it is. Maybe you believe you should be paid more, get more respect, have a partner who does not lie, or a best friend who does not get jealous. All of these are examples of seemingly inconsequential judgments about life. Regardless of how accurate they may be, however, they inhibit joy by redirecting our focus to what is—in our perception—wrong. This is an example of when being attached to being right really gets in the way.
And, of course, attachment to what we believe to be right and true also prevents us from forgiving. Forgiveness alone may not bring the joy we seek, but it is one essential piece of the puzzle. It does what nothing else does by transforming the relationship we have to the past and freeing us from the illusion of victimhood. That transformation cannot take place as long as we remain attached to our judgments about the things that have happened. That’s a two-for-one special: freedom and joy!
Other Joy Blockers
Of course, judgment is not the only block to joy. Many dispositional habits can prevent us from feeling joy, including regret. Like judgment, regret is an important tool we need and should use wisely. Denying we regret something done in the past is an excellent way to blur your sense of self and make healing harder (if not for you, most certainly for those around you). Holding onto the emotional components of regret for too long isn’t healthy, but having a cognitive understanding of how to avoid causing future harm (learning from our mistakes) is central to personal and communal healing. So, process the pain for past mistakes, learn from them, and let the pain go.
Trauma too limits our ability to experience joy. Not feeling joy or other pleasant emotions is one of the tale-tale signs that someone may be suffering from the effects of trauma (and/or depression). For me, realizing just how little joy I have experienced was a difficult loss to accept. All any of us can do is continue to nurture our inner and outer worlds until it’s hard to imagine a time when joy was a mystery.
If you have experienced developmental or acute trauma and struggle to experience joy or happiness despite life’s circumstances, please seek help. Recovery from the impact of trauma is possible, and you deserve joy as much as anyone else.
Isolation also dampens one’s capacity to experience joy, even for those with a preference for being alone. Joy is almost always a shared experience. In the book, A psychological perspective on joy and emotional fulfillment, the author indicates that in a comprehensive study of joy, 70% of joyful reports were affiliative, meaning in a group context. We are inherently social beings who need some level of human connection to thrive.
Judgment, Joy, and Forgiveness
As we move through the healing journey of forgiveness, we need to acknowledge that life is not black and white. As long as we tell ourselves we are right and everyone else is wrong, we cannot heal.
One way to learn to do this is to try approaching the memories we have as novelties. Our minds are tricky and our memories are only imprints of what happened. Wonder why that particular imprint is with you rather than why something happened the way you remember it. Because, truthfully, they are probably quite different.
When it comes to learning for today, try approaching life as an explorer. When you find yourself saying, “Oh, I know what’s going on,” stop and instead say, “Maybe I don’t know…” Simply by considering we actually do not know—and, just as important, we do not need to know—we shift our perspective from one of defense to one of receptivity and openness to what life has to offer.
Developing a habit of nonjudgment and non-resistance is a powerful way to live. Approaching life with a beginner’s mind manifests a world that is much different, more grounded in possibility and beauty, than a world in which we know what to expect. We always find what we are looking for. So, if you are looking for something to be wrong, that is what you will find.
When we discover for ourselves that suffering begins with the judgments we have about what has happened or is happening now, choosing instead to embrace the unknown and navigate life as it unfolds becomes the only reasonable way to live. From there, joy makes itself known.
Meadows, C. M. (2014). A psychological perspective on joy and emotional fulfillment. New York, NY: Routledge.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 191–220.
Izard, C. E. (1972). Patterns of emotions: A new analysis of anxiety and depression. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Fonzo, G.A. (2018). Diminished positive affect and traumatic stress: A biobehavioral review and commentary on trauma affective neuroscience. Neurobiology of Stress, 9, 214-230.