I’ve been thinking about joy a lot for the past six months or so. It’s been easy to feel joy when I’m surrounded by people I love, or worshipping Jesus, or having lunch with my best friend on a lazy Friday afternoon enjoying an ocean view and buffalo wings. Less easy when I’m stuck in traffic on the 110 freeway, sitting in my office doing admin, or dealing with some deep-seated uncertainty about the future.
But I learned something very profound last fall, during a three-month stay in Mozambique, an African nation that is one of the poorest in the world. Joy is not always a feeling that descends upon you like a vapor. It’s not even necessarily the result of doing something you love. Joy is a choice.
The majority of Mozambicans deal with some pretty heavy life circumstances that most of us in the US will never touch or understand. Fatal illness and extreme poverty are given in a country that ranks 171 out of 177 countries on the human development index. Malaria, HIV/AIDS, low literacy, and unemployment rates are all extremely high, and the average person lives to be only 38.5 years. Regardless of how depressing this sounds, the Mozambicans I knew were some of the most joyful people I have ever come across. Children especially, but most of the adults too.
They came into church sick, tired, hungry, and thirsty. And they got up on stage and danced wildly, sang loudly, and clapped their hands, stamped their feet, and thanked their God. I saw them do the same thing in remote villages in stifling heat and traveling in aluminum truck beds for hours. The point is Mozambicans knew how to access and choose joy, because it wasn’t contingent on their circumstances. Their joy was in their God. If that were true, I wouldn’t have seen one person smile, laugh, or sing in that country.
So, how do we choose joy? I think it really comes down to three things: knowing what joy feels like, that it has a source beyond our own emotions, and being thankful: gratitude for what we have now, what we’ve experienced in the past, and what we’re hoping for in the future. It’s the key that I have found to be the most powerful when I realize it’s time to choose joy again. When I make that decision I sit down and make a list of everything I am thankful for, including items like “Chai tea”, “YouTube”, and “my mom.” Seriously, everything goes on the list, and if I can’t fill a page I’ve got a problem.
My friend Morea is one of the most joyful people I know. She was my roommate in Mozambique, which meant that she slept on the bunk on top of mine in the heavy heat, away from breeze of the fan, and shared a bathroom with no plumbing (if you can call that a bathroom) with four other girls- and she had one of the best attitudes out of anyone I’d ever known. She used half a bottle of water at night and half in the morning to bathe, and never complained once but laughed and smelled like essential oils through the whole three months. She’s amazing.
Morea chooses to thank God in all circumstances and to keep things in perspective. She never let the lack of plumbing get her down. And she cares- deeply- for the people in her immediate surroundings, whether it’s her roommates in Mozambique or her family members in Laguna Beach. She lives outside of herself, in contrast to most twenty-somethings I know (including myself).
Joy is not an emotion. It’s hard to choose an emotion. And I would also say joy is more than a state of mind. Joy is trust in and recognition of the goodness and glory of the world around you. I’ve been learning to tap into that in every situation I find myself in, and I think it’s safe to say we all have that capability. If someone suffering chronic sickness in sub-Saharan Africa can do it, and if someone else in suburban America dealing with all the uncertainties that come with being twenty-seven can do it, then we all can.