Made for Joy

We were made for joy.

If you watch children at all, you know that. Laughter, skipping, a silly verve for life are such a part of childhood that even in war-torn countries and refugee camps you can find children playing.

Of course, we drive it out of them as soon as we can. In school, joy can be disruptive, so we wall it off to the courtyard of play-time, which gets curtailed as soon as we can fill their days of scheduled after-school activities and homework, where coaches and teachers further underscore that the point is to get serious and settle down.

We do this, basically, to get people ready for adulthood, where joy is not really a public phenomenon. In the last week, I surreptitiously polled two groups – one in person, and one on Facebook – about what gives them joy. Family (including furry family and families of choice), hobbies, and nature were almost all of the responses. A few people (less than 5) talked about the impact of their (usually volunteer) work. Again, joy is a private, rather than a public phenomenon. But everyone who responded should count themselves lucky – at least they had an answer top of mind.

In the last couple of years we have begun talking about “flow”, which is sort of like joy, except you can’t smile and it has to be in service to your employer.

All of this is wrong.


I’ll posit a definition for joy, which is one of those things that can be tough to define but you know when you see it. But let’s try this: Joy is the feeling you get when you are doing what you feel like you were meant to do, with the people you were meant to do it, in the place you were meant to be. Joy is the feeling of the soul at play. Joy is both in the journey and the destination; there is a satisfaction from accomplishment that sparks joy, but there is a joy in the process in knowing you are doing your part to its fullest to get there. Joy is infectious, as is its opposite, which I’ll label malaise. And you can choose to be open to joy; you can do the same thing with or without joy (and people can tell the difference from 50 feet away).

As I just defined it, you might think that joy needs to be reserved for something important. I think that misunderstands what I mean by “what we are meant for.” In his many books and talks, Matthew Kelly talks often about “becoming the best possible version of yourself.” That happens at a lot of different levels of what we would usually think of as “important” and acknowledges that we each have different roles to play in different arenas of our lives. Kids are meant to play. So are adults – not just at home or at the beach but everywhere.

The one thing I remember about the movie Chariots of Fire besides the slow-motion running to music was a quote by the British pastor and Olympic runner Eric Liddell. When he was asked how someone with such a serious, important role could spend his time on something as trivial as running, his response was “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” While God did not make me fast, there are times when I swim that I feel God’s pleasure. That’s what joy is.

I have seen joy in unlikely people and places. Not long ago, when the city pool where I swim was undergoing renovation of its locker rooms, the city had port-a-potties installed, and I remember several mornings leaving the pool as the guy whose job it was to service the port-a-potties was about his work. And he was joyous, in how he greeted people and how he acted. Cleaning port-a-potties before dawn. One of the people who runs the front desk at that pool is far happier than anyone should be expected to be at that early hour, anywhere, much less working a front desk. “Peace and love,” she shouts with a smile to you as you leave. They choose the joy they were made for.


About 20 years ago, I was working at a small university in Mississippi as the sports information director and de facto public affairs officer for the school. One of the things I did was send a weekly email to everyone on campus about what sporting events were coming up. I remember one time, after seeing the school’s theater group put on a show, I put this reflection into my weekly e-mail (paraphrased; my record-keeping is worse than my memory):

There are lots of reasons to go to a sporting event or to a live musical performance, and there are lots of reasons not to. Go to one this week though, for this reason. What I saw at the show last week that grabbed my attention more than the songs themselves was the look on the faces of the performers. They said, not with their words but with the way they performed, that they had done everything they could to prepare for their role, they knew they had the talent to do it well, and they knew they were on the top of their game.

I recognized that look, because I see it in our athletes in the midst of competitioon.That look of joy is one you only really see in theater and sports. But it does us good to get to witness it. Maybe it will rub off, even.

One of the things that makes The Greatest Showman attractive is the joy with which the performers deliver it. The songs certainly have the energy to set them up for that, and the storyline is joyful even despite the challenges characters face. Since the actors are playing performers, they have not only the freedom but the mandate to depict the joy of performing as an expression of the best possible versions of themselves.

Making movies is, I bet, pretty soul-sucking, tedious work. I spent an entire 8-hour day once filming a 30-second commercial, and I was ready to crawl into a hole at the end of that day. But there are a couple of videos released by 20th Century Fox in promotion of the movie that show the joy-behind-the-joy.

Look at this one. Focus on the guy who stands up to sing the second verse, just as an example.

Do something that makes you feel like it looks like that guy feels.

Here’s another great one. I like the woman who looks like she’s standing on a table belting it out, but when Benj Pasek high-fives Hugh Jackman, you see the joy of someone who knows he’s birthed a project that’s going to get green-lit.


What faith brings to this discussion is this: We make the claim that the highest joy you can feel, the best-possible-best-possible-version-of-yourself, is in fulfilling the role God has in mind for you to love Him and the people he puts in your path as much as you possibly can, and use what gifts you’ve been given to their fullest. What we say we believe is that there are lots of other ways to be joyful, and they are wonderful, but they exist to give us a hint of a more perfect joy that comes from soaking in the love of the divine Lover.

We say that we believe that. It’s pretty rare that we live that way, though. Instead, we spend a lot of time talking down the lesser joys, pooh-poohing and tsk-tsking silliness rather than offering an even more joyful presence to the world.

It would be great, instead, if we worked on choosing the joy before us and striving for the joy we were made for.

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