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2022: Joy vs. Pleasure

Happy New Year!

Each January, I ask myself "What am I doing with my life?" I thought I would share a few thoughts from that reflection with you in hopes that it helps focus your own goals for 2022!

Today I began by picking a word that sums up my focus for next 12 months, and this year the first word that came to mind was JOY.

Like many people, 2021 for me was full of ups and downs. The past couple years have intertwined our mental health with the state of the entire world to an unusually high degree. For me it became a convenient excuse not to take care of myself – after all, what’s the point of making a kale salad when the world is sick and on fire? But morbid cynicism has been around a lot longer than covid-19.

In reality, my life became less stressful during the pandemic. I taught virtually, avoiding hours every week stuck in traffic with Boston drivers. I seldom had any pesky obligations, and was able to spend days with just me, my guitar, and three cups of coffee. And after spending much of the pandemic lazing about, eating whatever I wanted and playing video games, I affirmed what I already knew: that pleasure and joy are not the same. Pleasure is positive sensation (taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound). Joy is a deeper realization of contentment and fulfillment – it can coincide with pleasure, but they are not interchangeable.

Of course we all seek happiness, but we mistake pleasure for joy. Pleasure comes and goes. But when I feel joyful, I notice that I am more aware of myself and my life. I feel more alert and focused, and even more compassionate and empathetic. We often think of stress and negativity as a motivator (necessity is the mother of invention, so they say), but I feel more capable of making intelligent decisions when I act from joy, rather than desperation or anxiety. Bad moods lead to worse choices.

Although the solitude of the pandemic exacerbated this tendency, I now realize that I have been a pleasure-seeker rather than a joy-seeker for much of my life. When that becomes stale, I then tend to swing back in the opposite direction, attempting to structure my life around “important” pursuits instead, such as music, good food, exercise, meditation, reading, and many other things that are “good for me.” Those are all truly great things when performed with heart; without it, they are dull as cardboard.

Even music is often fraught with expectation and pressure for me, and although I love it dearly, I can't say that it has been a purely joyful experience (even though I channel a great deal of love and passion into what I create).

So. How does one live more joyfully?