Tidings of comfort and Joy

‘Tis the season, as the song goes. The Christmas season when those songs about peace and happiness and joy get played on repeat in every store you go into.

But what kind of things bring you joy? You know, those little moments of heart-gladdening, the lightning flash of something that lifts your soul, the glimpses of something beautiful that shake your head out of where it was and into a better place. It can be hard to come by at Christmastime, despite what the songs say. Financial pressures, work pressures, familial pressures – a whole lot of stresses can build up and make this time of year a lot less joyful than it should be (at least according to the songs).

Joy. It’s more transient than happiness. It can be momentary or (minute-ary). It might make you laugh. It might make you smile. It might make you want to jump up and down and shout.

I was inspired to start writing this post after listening to a TED talk on the Aesthetics of Joy by Ingrid Fetell Lee. Here she talked about her research into what kind of things people find joyful, and how she realised she could group them into categories.

So maybe if you’re feeling unjoyful this Christmas, here are some suggestions of things to look out for that might – in some small way – mentally recondition you to rediscover some joy.

Round things, and Bright colours

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Tulips in spring bring me joy. After the cold dark of winter, those bright firework explosions of colour tell me that spring is here.

Christmas baubles. Yes they’re gaudy and maybe a bit tacky, but they are round and shiny and (at least in the northern hemisphere) at a dark time of year, these brightly coloured round objects tick two boxes on the joy list straight away.

I’ve included here a picture of some tulips from my garden. I always feel a moment of joy when I look out of the house and see tulips in flower in the spring. Bright coloured tulips with their pleasing bowl shape, and of course daffodils also with their bright yellow – they really give me a boost in the spring. It’s like the signal to breathe again after holding my breath all winter.

Symmetrical shapes

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There is something pleasing about symmetry. Even if we’re not aware of it, our eyes and mind register the beauty of it. While a trip to the Taj Mahal may not be on the cards this year, there are other places you can look for symmetry. Christmas trees for instance can be symmetrical. Real or fake, they have a pleasing shape. Maybe it’s a good time to pause for a moment and look at one. Even just the time it takes to take one breath in, and let one breath out. Stand still, clear your mind and really look. And maybe that one breath could be enough to let go of some stress and bring back some joy.

Abundance and multiplicity

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These colourful plates spotted on holiday are joyful in abundance for their bright colours, their sheer number and their exuberant presence.

Christmas is a time of abundance. In general, it’s an abundance of food, an abundance of spending, an abundance of socialising. But none of these things necessarily bring joy. If this season you feel you the abundance around you is suffocating, it could be a time to remember those who have less. Donate to a foodbank, give money to a homeless shelter or throw some spare change towards the charity collectors who linger on the streets and in the train stations at this time of year. Every morning and every evening for the past few days I have been either serenaded by a choir or entertained by a band as I walk through the station to/from my train. There are people out there doing good for those who need help. If you have enough in your life, then share something with others.

Lightness and Elevation

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When was the last time you took time to look up at the clouds?

I had a moment this summer where I had the chance to lie on the grass and look up at the sky. I hadn’t done this in some time and I forgot how peaceful it could feel. But after a little while it started to feel dizzying. It was as if I could feel the whole earth beneath me and sense the great void of the sky and space above me. It wasn’t so hard to realise that human beings are just specks stuck to a giant ball spinning at high speed through space. Take some time this season to look up at the sky and watch the clouds, or maybe watch a bird fly. Again, it may only be one or two breaths, but taking that time out to look at something, to focus your attention on something uplifting, might be enough to make you feel better.

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Ingrid’s talk also pondered the reason why when colour and abundance and symmetry all bring joy, we spend a lot of our working life in offices which are grey and sparse and (let’s be honest) a bit depressing. In fact in some workplaces, keeping your work space clear and impersonal is an enforced corporate policy. Ingrid mentioned that people who work in colourful offices are more alert, more confident and friendlier. My workplace may be cluttered but it’s also colourful, and although I’m sitting in a space with no natural light, I find these two windows to the world on my wall give me something to look at other than my computer screen. I can’t be sure that they are making me more alert, more confident or friendlier, but they make me feel better.

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This is why people decorate their offices at Christmas – it’s a seasonally justified chance to bring colour, abundance and a little bit of joy to a space which, for most of the year, is probably not all that joyful.

However if you really want joy this Christmas season, no-one does it better than Aretha Franklin. Take it away Aretha…

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