Pseudo-spiritual self-help memoirs line bookstore shelves, instructing us how to use our breath to get happy. Hot Yoga classes with a side of watered-down Buddhism shape our bodies and minds, selling self-actualization like a commodity. We sample the aspects of cultures and religions we find rewarding, spending time and money excessively to achieve “flash happiness.” But what happens when the flash burns out? Again, we toil.
If happiness is a commodity, then we’re facing a recession. According to a recent Harris poll, only one third of Americans are “very happy,” and The World Happiness Report ranked the U.S. number fifteen of all countries—puzzling when our wealth and resources far exceed most of the countries ranking above us. Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in our definition of happiness, which, according to The Washington Post, has come to mean increasing comfort by achieving a higher individual income—less about a journey, more about a destination. So, rather than a hard-wrought reward of plunging our own depths in self-examination, rather than the presence of joy, happiness has become more about what it isn’t. Our idea of happiness has morphed into avoiding suffering.
So what’s beyond the name-brand happiness we strive for? Could there be a more nourishing, sustainable landscape for us to step into? And if so, how do we get there? Therein lies the paradox of our solo quests for satisfaction—maybe it’s not about avoiding suffering, but walking right through it, all the way to joy.
Joy, like many virtues, is hard to find. But ten minutes into Pixar’s Inside Out, I was convinced it would find me. The film gives us a peek inside the mind of eleven-year-old Riley, whose family endures a difficult cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Through the journey, we see her emotions of sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and joy personified, running a “command center” in Riley’s brain. Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is the peppy ringleader.
The relationship between Joy and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) intrigued me from the beginning. Joy, head of the command center, harnesses all the other emotions, takes especial care to protect Riley from Sadness. In one instance, we see Sadness fumbling around the command center, unable to pull herself out of a slump of melancholy. Fearful Sadness will take the steering wheel of Riley’s brain on a whim, Joy commands her, “Stay in your circle!” As the determined Joy fights for her rightful plot in Riley’s mind, a thesis practically built itself in my mine—joy commands us! Happiness will find us! Joy is the most powerful, poignant emotion, to which sadness is ultimately subservient.
But as the movie progresses, Joy and Sadness develop a rapport, even a partnership, collaborating and sharing resources to give Riley a full, genuine emotional experience. Where Joy used to call the shots, she begins to yield to other emotions, realizing they may lead Riley to something more lasting: a more complex form of joy, sweetened and hallowed by the pain of knowing loss.
One scene in Inside Out shows the power of Sadness to reap lasting happiness. In a quest to cheer Riley up, Joy revels in a memory of a hockey game, and what appears to be a celebration. But Sadness remembers it differently: the team had actually lost, discouraging Riley, but also leading her to the joy of genuine time with her family. Sorrow lent the celebration a more complex flavor: a little bit bitter because of the loss, but a sweet finish because her family was there to encourage her. It was the initial sting of loss and the vulnerability of suffering that prompted Riley to seek comfort in her parents, opening her up to the joy of intimacy and connection with those close to her. At this point, Joy starts to realize the power Sadness might have to enrich Riley’s life.
Maybe that’s the sweet spot we’re missing in a fast-happy culture. The contrived veneer of happiness will always fail us, because it doesn’t have a foundation. After all, why would we treasure joy if we hadn’t first experienced its absence? The film suggests that joy and sadness can indeed coexist, and they should—their collaboration yields the happiness we search for. Real joy, then, isn’t a commodity, but a discipline, the hard-won fruit of being willing to first trudge through undesirable emotions.
On the other side of the hustle for happiness is the mindfulness movement emphasizing mindful meditation, a practice designed to reduce stress and anxiety not by consuming, but through quiet noticing. Through increased attention to the mundane of the physical, mindfulness practices summon us to observe the very sensations that keep us alive, ultimately minimizing stress and reducing pain.
Sounds good, right? Not to critics of “McMindfulness,” who claim the “colonized” American version, uncoupled from the ancient Buddhist practice, is “marketed to reduce stress,” when it is actually meant to be part of an ethical program to propagate “wise action.” Ron Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, wrote in The Huffington Post: “When mindfulness practice is compartmentalized in this way, the interconnectedness of personal motives is lost. There is a dissociation between one’s own personal transformation.”
This version of mindfulness meditation promotes noticing without the act of judging. But is simply noticing sadness enough to achieve real joy? Or does genuine happiness reside on the other side of the transforming crucible of suffering?
Though we pour our money and time into escaping the discomfort bound to plague us, Christian writer C.S. Lewis argued that our desires, especially our desire for happiness, aren’t too strong; rather, they’re too weak. He writes in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
If mud pies are the happiness we forge with feeble hands, joy is the holiday at sea. And according to Inside Out, there is no way there but through sadness—we must exist in it, engage with it, trudge through it to experience real, meaningful joy. Like Robert Frost writes in his poem “A Servant to Servants,” “the best way out is always through.”
Toward the end of Inside Out, in a culmination of fear, disgust, and anger, Riley runs away from home, hopping on a bus back to Minnesota where she thinks she’ll find joy again. Of course, Riley does choose to return safely home, but it’s not Joy who convinces her— Sadness propels her back into her parents’ arms. The sadness of imagining life without her family led her home, to joy, where she belongs. Joy gets the last say, but not without the help of her counterpart, Sadness.
It’s certainly possible to experience isolated joy without the prerequisite of sadness, and Riley does—the film flashes back to early, foundational memories of pure joy, like her first hockey goal while skating with her parents on a lake and laughing with a friend while blowing bubbles in milk. But the emotion that propels her to take positive action in her life—the one that brings her home—is the same one we try to escape from: sadness. Maybe the isolated moments make us happy, but it’s the mingling of pain and beauty that makes us human, drawing us into the most vibrant version of ourselves. That’s the beauty of collaborating with the whole spectrum of emotions. When sadness carves a deep valley in us, it’s also making space for joy to burst in—our holiday at sea.