On Halloween morning this year, I considered whether or not I should wear a costume to my Zumba class.
At first, it seemed like an inconsequential decision.
Wear one, don't wear one, who really cares, right??!!
But as the day transpired, I realized there were a couple of things that did feel important about my eventual decision to don a little devil outfit and head to class.
Most people I know (myself included) are joy-deficient.
I know exactly zero people who could honestly say, "Uggghhh. I have WAYYYY too much joy in my life right now!!!!"
Many people experience joy so rarely that they have forgotten what it feels like. They're "happy" sometimes, or maybe more like "content," or at the very least "fine."
But happy, content, and fine are not the same as joyful.
We can't expect to feel joy all of the time. We are not entitled to this either. In fact, forever chasing joy can lead to other problems...
But we all deserve to experience joy once in a while, don't you think? I do.
Many people are cut off from joy in ways that make life feel flat or dreary. They may not be aware of it because joy isn't something that's even on the table for them. Others may feel a deep sadness from its absence and a longing to find it. They may have a vague memory of this feeling as something experienced as a child, or no memory at all.
There are many reasons for this joy deficiency, too many to try to tackle all of them here. Some barriers to joy are circumstantial or out of our individual control, However, there are others we may have some influence over.
Some people think joy is the unicorn of the animal kingdom: a nice idea, maybe, but it doesn't *really* exist.
This world view is understandable, especially if life has been filled with suffering. It can be hard to believe in something we have yet to experience for ourselves.
It can feel risky to believe in the possibility of joy, even riskier to hope for it. We may think if we allow ourselves to wish for it and never get it, that the disappointment would be worse than never believing it was possible to begin with.
If we don't believe in something, we won't go in search of it. We won't feel like it's something worth pursuing.
Many of us miss out on joy that is right in front of us: because we are paying attention to other things; we're stuck in our heads, or we're consumed by worry, or grief, or busyness.
For some of us, it's not that our lives don't create opportunities for joy; it's that we have barriers to experiencing it.
Many of us have complicated and deeply entrenched beliefs and stories about joy, which can make it feel problematic, dangerous even.
Here are some common ones I've come across in my career:
"Joy is shameful."
"Joy is something for other people. I don't get to experience it."
"If I allow myself to feel joy, something bad will happen."
"Experiencing joy (or even craving it) is selfish."
"Joy is not something to be trusted. If I let down my guard and feel joyful, there will be consequences. It's not worth the risk."
What's tricky is that many of these beliefs live below the level of consciousness. We receive messages early on about whether it's acceptable and safe to experience joy. We internalize these messages and they become beliefs. We may not even be aware they are playing in our head, or we may not think of them as beliefs, but rather as objective truths about the way things are.
As I often write about, these types of beliefs are more powerful when we aren't aware of them. They drive our action (or inaction) without us knowing it, and therefore they remain unquestioned and unchallenged.
If we can identify these invisible stories that we're telling ourselves, we can begin to consider how we feel about them and whether it's possible that they may not be true.
Given all these barriers, we need to take (and make!) our joy where we can get it.
Maybe putting on a devil costume and going to Zumba doesn't bring *you* joy, but it does (and it did) bring me joy.
Did it change my life? No. But it did change my day.
It was like a splash of color on a black and white canvas.
And if you think about it, our days are made up of moments, and our lives are made up of days.
So really, we change our lives moment by moment, day by day.
Here's the other thing that felt meaningful about wearing my costume that day: joy is contagious.
Joy begets joy.
If you feel joyful and you share it with others, they can't help but get some of your joy on them. Then their joy splashes back onto you, amplifying what was already there.
While wearing the costume was something I did for me, it brought other people joy too.*
*I can't actually prove this, but I have a hunch.
Let's face it. I looked ridiculous.
There's something about a devil on an elliptical machine that is absurd and funny.
Don't believe me? Look.
People walked by and smiled. It made them stop for a moment and (perhaps) take themselves or their lives less seriously.
I know for sure they took ME less seriously.
I was on the elliptical for the photo op only. When I asked one of Zumba classmates if she would take a quick pic of me in my costume, she insisted it would be better if I was using some gym equipment.
Who was I to deny her creative vision???
Her playful and creative side was invited out (or at least made to feel welcome), by mine.
Now if you think a devil on an elliptical machine is funny, there's something even funnier about a devil earnestly doing a Zumba routine, especially when SHE IS THE ONLY PERSON IN COSTUME IN THE WHOLE CLASS.
And this brings me to my next point.
The second reason my choice to wear the costume felt important is this:
I got to practice not worrying about what others think.
As I danced about, my homemade devil tail flying through the air, I thought about how grateful I was to be comfortable enough to do it, to not care what people thought or feel ashamed that I was the only one.
Years ago, my desire to wear the costume might have been buried too deeply for me to even know it was there. And even if I was able to hear that voice encouraging me to play, I might have let my fear of other people's judgement keep me from wearing it.
And I would have deprived myself (and possibly others) a little bit of a joy.
There were whispers of that worry that morning.
Just because I'm a therapist, doesn't mean I'm immune. I'm still human. I still get tripped up by fear of what people think. I still care more than I'd like about others' approval.
But those whispers were drowned out by another louder voice saying:
WHO CARES WHAT THEY THINK??? JUST PUT ON THE DAMN COSTUME AND HAVE A LITTLE FUN.
So I did.
Some questions to consider:
What brings you joy?
What small ways might you cultivate or invite more joy in your life?
Do you allow yourself to experience joy fully and freely? If not, what gets in the way?
Feel free to share your answers to any or all of these questions in the comments below.
fara tucker, lcsw
therapist~consultant~teacher in Portland, Oregon