Executive Perspective

Ode to Joy

by Paul D. Houston
 Last spring I was asked to lead a weekend retreat on the topic of “Joy in the Workplace.” It wasn’t easy. First I am an educator and, as you know, lately it is sometimes hard to find joy in our work. Further, I live and work near Washington, D.C., where joy is the road kill on the superhighway to self-absorption. Finally, I had a lot of non-joyful personal issues on my plate at that point.

But I went to the retreat and listened and thought a lot. What I realized is that we tend to have a limited definition of joy. I call it the “Snoopy Dance” version of joy. You remember how the cartoon character Snoopy would express his happiness by bursting into a dance of unbridled ecstasy? I think that is how most of us tend to think joy operates and if we don’t have that level of glee in our lives, we can’t be experiencing joy.

The fact is that joy comes in many flavors and levels of intensity. Certainly the joy of a new love, the birth of a baby or winning the lottery rank up there and deserve several Snoopy dances. But we should consider the joy found in a quiet moment of reflection amidst the din of confusion, the discovery of a spring flower or a child’s smile.

Additionally, there is joy when we have completed a difficult work task or we find ourselves in the flow of accomplishing something really hard. Joy is all around us. It is in the peak experiences of our life and it snuggles itself around the moments of serenity that are all too few. Joy grows in the connection to friends, family or nature. It can be found in intense moments of passion or in the release from the dark moments of our soul. Joy is as much about Charlie Brown getting up once again after Lucy has pulled the football away as it is about Snoopy and his dance.

Neglected Feeling At this time of year we may confront joy as an expectation and we think about joy to the world. And yet, if you are like me, I always have treated it as a word and a concept, not a part of who I am or how I feel. We educators get so caught up in thinking, we forget to feel. We forget that at its core, joy is a feeling that can and must be experienced constantly.

A few weeks before my weekend retreat on joy, I had the chance to visit Brazil with a group of AASA folks. It was truly a wondrous experience. The country is breathtakingly beautiful and populated by wonderful people who have learned to live in the moment. In fact, it is such a lush and beautiful place the Brazilians have a phrase that “God is a Brazilian”—not because they want to claim God for themselves, but because they recognize how blessed they are to live in a place of such beauty and ease. The weather is almost always perfect; there are no natural disasters, and the food literally falls from the trees.

But all is not well there. Poverty and the distance between the haves and have-nots lies at the core of Brazilian life. The “favelas,” or slums of their cities, are miserable places of poverty, prostitution and drugs. Death is never far away. They lose literally thousands of children a month to gun and drug-related violence and the police are viewed as big a problem as the drug lords.

During the trip, we were passing one of the slums and our bus was struck by a bullet. Whether it was a stray or whether we had been targeted by the random violence that poverty breeds, we’ll never know. All we knew is that the bus was hit and none of us was, and we felt joyful about that. We realized that joy can be dodging a bullet figuratively or literally. Joy stems from the short distance between death or an interesting story to tell back home—the two or three inches between a round hole in a metal frame or disaster, between horror and life.

Seizing Opportunities As I reflected on the moment I realized how much we live our lives in that narrow geography between peril and possibility. So we are left with only one choice. We must choose how we live. And we must choose joy.

Near the end of the trip we visited Iguaçu Falls, which has to be one of the most spectacular sights anywhere in the world. Imagine Niagara Falls two miles wide set in the lush rain forest. We had butterflies landing on our heads and shoulders, and we were surrounded by rainbows. The power of the falls and the sheer beauty made onlookers throw their arms in the air and their heads back in joyful release.

The guides took us in a boat and after taking the requisite pictures, they had us put away the cameras and the captain said, “Now let’s go get some fun.” And we did as he drove us repeatedly in and out of the falls. We got about all the fun we could handle. It struck me that if we are to have fun, or joy, it is not about receiving it—it is about “getting it.” We must choose life and we must make our joy.

As we celebrate this holiday season, we should be reminded that if our lives seem joyless and our work too hard, maybe it is because we haven’t chosen to go get the possibilities that are all around us.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.