Joy, Gratitude, and the Space In Between
“Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.”- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A teardrop of sweat undulates down my spine as I sit in a Starbucks tucked inside a wrinkle of Union Square. I’m sipping hot chocolate, not coffee because my dreams and midterms keep me up at night well enough. This place is providing some greatly needed respite after an intense Krav Maga class in which my nose was respectfully punched. The right portion of my neck is taut, and tomorrow my arms will surely bear badge-like bruises. On the 9th floor of a glass building I street fight, and now I sit listening to a matronly woman on my right humming along to Starbucks’ genre-less playlist. It’s an odd mind-game to play; the former releases angst and sharp exhales, the latter the resultant stress with rounded inhales. The two activities are antitheses; almost physical parallels to extroversion and introversion.
Joy. A crude translation of my own name, its three smiling letters form a visual onomatopoeia, if I make take such poetic license. In this chosen evening of solitude, I feel its grateful, grinning presence in my cup of cocoa.
12:00 am March 8th, 2016. Midterms, oh midterms. I’m burrowed in bed, struggling to keep my head above metaphorical water as well as off my pillow. As I ruefully submit myself to the guilty pleasure/rabbit hole that is YouTube, a forum replete with tutorials that require materials I don’t even possess and impractical clips of pandas throwing tantrums, something glorious happens. It’s my birthday, and my friends elatedly barge into the room holding a massive ice-cream cake, balloons, and the warmth that comes with feeling appreciated in their hands. An eclectic bunch, the twelve or so of us sit in a circle on the floor and dig in. As a true-freshman at the time, we had only known each other for six months, however, with all the newly acquired wisdom that comes when one turns a whopping 19, I knew these were my people. As a whimsically cliche activity, I brought out my journal read down a list of things I had wanted to achieve in my 18th year.
“Memorize my social security number like a goshdang adult?” Check.
“Find the best fries in New York City?” Check.
“Pirouette across an intersection of midtown at 3 am?” Check.
Times like these: occasions of feeling safe, seen, connected. Such wholehearted moments of recognition provide the joy that fueled me to write a long email home, in which I thanked my parents for raising me right, and for paying tuition at Stern College for Knowledge.
Something enters our lives. Something that makes our chests open and vulnerable. It could be the potential for love, the birth of a child, or even the sudden recognition that things are going too well. It’s something that textbooks and our friends tell us will provide joy and copious springs of it. And it does. But how it disturbs us when, unlike in other, steadier moments of joy, we catch a slinking shadow of foreboding from the corner of our eyes. Like a cup of spilled paint water on the edges of a canvas, a fog loiters around the fresh image as it dries. Guiltily, it is repressed, reassessed, or renamed. When it unexpectedly returns, perturbing and at the most inopportune of times, it is sometimes mistaken for intuition. Images of this chrysalis experience and its worst possible demise flash through our minds.
In times of positive change and vulnerability, why does this sense of premonition cloud our ability to be present and joyous?
Daniel Kahneman, Israeli philosopher, psychologist, and Nobel laureate, is renowned for his work on happiness, judgment and decision making. His research extends to concepts of experience versus memory. In one such study, Kahneman set out to prove that one’s tangible experience and one’s perception of that experience are not entirely aligned. He describes this dual sense of identity as one’s experiencing-self and one’s remembering-self. In everyday life, including joyous situations, our experiencing-self is there, taking tactical notes for future recall. Our remembering-self, on the other hand, is what actually holds the key to our perceptions of previous events. It maintains the story of our lives, and it ultimately decides if an experience was positive or negative, even if the reality was nuanced.
To test this theory, Kahneman conducted an experiment in which participants underwent a painful colonoscopy. The control group experienced a standard procedure, one with a peak moment of pain followed by the colonoscopy’s abrupt end, while the procedure of the manipulated group was altered. Individuals in this group followed a bell-curve style of pain level. Unbeknownst to them, the procedure was thus longer, but the pain tapered off towards the end and minimal discomfort was experienced for the last few moments. Data was collected from both groups and each participant rated his/her experience. Those in the control group, with the standard procedure, reviewed their experience negatively, while those with the altered test felt less passionate about their discomfort. When participants were informed post-hoc of the experiment, each elected to undergo the manipulated procedure in the future, even if it was longer! Why? With the majority of experiencing-self moments forgotten, our minds depend upon our remembering-self when recalling if an experience was positive or negative. In this case, as well as many others, our remembering-self chooses based off the last memory, and not the overall experience.
It is with this in mind that we can begin to understand human joy and our relationship with it. Happiness is transient. Both our experiencing and remembering-selves understand that all experiences, including moments of joy, are finite and fleeting. The issue is when, as dominated by our remembering-selves, we all too often balk at this fact. Our relationship with joy cannot be focused on the attainment and maintenance of it, but rather on our ability to enjoy its duration, and remember it with accuracy.
So why we do seem to self-sabotage in this manner?
In her book “Rising Strong,” researcher Brene Brown expands upon the nature of joy and how we sometimes shield our experiencing-selves from it. As a psychologist primarily focused on shame and vulnerability, Brown asserts that joy is the most vulnerable of emotions, because it requires us to forgo control and temporarily forget about its inevitable termination. For example, Brown recounts that she has gazed at her blissfully sleeping child, only to suddenly be struck by a mental image of something horrible occurring to her offspring and thought “things are going too well, the other shoe must be about to drop.” Like we all tend to do, this mental exercise was an attempt at armoring up to try and beat vulnerability to the punch. Particularly in new endeavors, joy also requires us to acknowledge potential failure, and face the reality that our expectations of the situation may not be met. To fully expose oneself to joy, one must endure vulnerability. When this feat seems insurmountable and we find ourselves unable to soften into the moment and let it run its course, we begin to “dress rehearse tragedy” to stave off potential disappointment. Furthermore, when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.
In such instances of foreboding joy, when contentment is inhibited by unwarranted apprehension, both our experiencing and remembering-selves go through a temporary existential crisis of sorts. Life, as a series of waves, offers hardship and disappointment as surely as it bestows upon us new experiences of joy. The struggle for constancy amongst such entropy is the attempt to assure ourselves that nothing will change, even as we acknowledge that our own remembering-selves’ perceptions are biased and transient. To guarantee that our remembering-selves regard the moment as pleasantly as possible, our experiencing-selves hinders full exposure to joy as an emotion so that nothing too unsatisfactory can surprise us. It’s the ultimate defense mechanism and cautionary game of “I told you so.”
In moments of foreboding joy, the bridge between our experiencing and remembering-selves, as well as between joy and loss, is gratitude. When we find ourselves feeling vulnerable to the changes, we must make conscious effort to refrain from practicing for disaster. According to Brown, instead of allowing this negative intuition to swell, we must relinquish control, soften, and lean forward into the moment. We must transfer it to gratitude. For only gratitude, as a practice, can become the constant, comforting variable as joy morphs to challenge, and challenge into growth.
As I write this, the time of year reminds me that nothing in the minds of man is unique and that generations of philosophers have come to the same conclusions. As such, we have a long-standing tradition of practicing these values. Thanksgiving approaches, a holiday solely dedicated to practicing gratitude. As we actively connect both our experiencing and remembering-selves, it is my hope that we can create memories that leave us gratified and grateful long after the jingle-bells fade.