You read that right. Research shows that people often fear joy. We say that we long for it. That we’re looking for it. That we’d give anything to have it. But the truth is, most people find it very very scary for one reason: we fear that as soon as we have it, it’ll disappear. Feeling joy leaves us vulnerable to disappointment or worse. So says Brene Brown, author of many New York Times best-sellers and a well-known researcher on vulnerability. Thousands of interviews and academic research led her to this surprising discovery about our fickle relationship with joy.
Have you ever had a series of things go your way, and then thought, “oh man, this is too good to be true; it can’t last!” That’s one manifestation of what I’m talking about. Another close-to-home example is that for all the good days that I had with my beloved soul mate dog Gunny, I really didn’t embrace the joy of most of those moments during the last year of his life because it was always overshadowed by my fear that he would die soon. I knew his death was going to rip away any joy I felt, and that knowledge kept me from truly embracing the joy of being with him while he was here. What a loss for both of us.
I‘ve met over 500 dogs. I can honestly say that I’ve never met a dog who feared joy. They embody it. It seems to ooze out of every pore with little prompting. When I walked through the door, Gunny’s wagging tail was an unmistakable expression of joy. Or better yet, the full body wag! And oh my goodness, going to play with a doggie friend causes my dog Beau to pace and whine, waiting for the door to open so he can go run to meet his friend. I have no sense that his joy is impeded in any way by worry that he’ll never see his friend again or that I won’t come home next time.
Without a doubt, there are anxious dogs and dogs who seem to worry. And there are dogs who can be overwhelmed with fear. Their experience in life may have taught them that humans or other dogs sometimes do bad things. But even dogs with separation anxiety don’t seem to fear being joyful when you do finally come home. Somehow, they don’t ruin that moment by wondering when you’re going to leave again. They’re happy to see you now.
Brene Brown said, “I think the most terrifying human experience is joy. It’s as if we believe that by truly feeling happiness, we’re setting ourselves up for a sucker punch. The problem is, worrying about things that haven’t happened doesn’t protect us from pain.” Ain’t that the truth. I wasn’t protected from the devastation over Gunny’s death because I squandered so many moments of joy before he died. I just lost out on joy. I wish I had known then what I know now: The path to joy runs straight through gratitude. According to Brene, “I believe joy is a spiritual practice we have to work at…. It means not living in fear of what I could lose, but softening into the moments I have.”
I don’t know if all dogs feel gratitude. I know that Gunny did. He was grateful for his life. Grateful for the chance to do some good in this world. Grateful that we were able to share an extraordinary life together. I know because he told me. And I know that he felt pure joy at so many small things – laying in his back yard on a sunny day, watching pelicans fly overhead on the beach, or feeling the ocean breeze in his face. Not once do I think he pulled back from that joy because he feared another illness was around the corner or his arthritis was going to flare up the next day and make it hard to walk. I so wish that I had been more like him.
Brene articulates for us in her academic lingo our path to pure joy; that it requires us to embrace vulnerability and to practice gratitude. I’ll just say this: be more like your dog and you will know what it is to live in a state of gratitude and vulnerability, and to feel pure joy at the large and small events in your life. I’m trying every day and I hope you’ll join me.