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Joy is a Skill, Remember to Practice It

A few years ago I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. This book has helped countless people help simplify their lives by focusing on what brings them joy. The book has a very simple premise (paraphrased):

Only keep things in your life that spark joy.

At first glance, this simple idea made sense to me. I have many things in my life that I could give away or sell and I wouldn’t bat an eye at. Not every possession is so simple though. Inherited and sentimental items are notoriously tough for me. I have family photos from the 1800s that perhaps don’t bring me joy, but are part of my family history. Should I throw them out?

Growing Joy

For the last 10 years since my mom passed away, I’ve been asking these questions about many different things. I’ve been fortunate to have time on my side in making these decisions.

Marie Kando has her own recommended way to learn what sparks joy – by starting with the items that are the easiest to part with and tackling those first. She recommends starting with specific categories and uncluttering them as a group – clothes, books, miscellaneous and finally sentimental items. The goal in using this order is to grow your “spark joy” sense so that by the time you make it to the more difficult items you have more experience understanding if something brings you joy.

Practicing joy is different from being happy. I interpret it as making decisions you think will bring you joy and then reflecting to see if your prediction was correct. For familiar behaviors – having ice cream, playing a game, watching a movie – this reflection will be less useful than when you challenge yourself with new experiences for which you’re not sure if you’ll like it. How do you know what you like until you try it?

Seneca Letter 59

Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher and playwright famous for his take on the human condition. The work of his that I connect most with is his Letters to Lucilius. This work includes 124 letters that Seneca wrote to “Lucilium”. It’s unclear if Lucilium was a real person or a fictional persona used by Seneca to explore different areas of philosophy. As a playwright, he has an unusual talent for a philosopher – the ability to write entertaining and informative content for normal people.

Seneca’s letter 59 is titled “On Pleasure and Joy“, and it stood out to me immediately. The letter is Seneca’s take on how to live a joyful life. This paragraph specifically seemed like an immediate inspiration to Kando.

Joy is the goal which you desire to reach, but you are wandering from the path, if you expect to reach your goal while you are in the midst of riches and official titles, – in other words, if you seek joy in the midst of cares, these objects for which you strive so eagerly, as if they would give you happiness and pleasure, are merely causes of grief.

My takeaway from this is the idea that joy doesn’t come from novelty. This also isn’t an answer or a recommendation to what will bring you joy — but an observation on what doesn’t. This matches well with Kando,  minimalism and simple living then expands on it with the mention that these very things that you thought might bring joy actually bring grief.

Seneca isn’t prescriptive about what will bring joy. There is no formula to follow. The closest mention ties joy to wisdom.

Reflect, therefore, on this, that the effect of wisdom is a joy that is unbroken and continuous. The mind of the wise man is like the ultra-lunar firmament; eternal calm pervades that region. You have, then, a reason for wishing to be wise, if the wise man is never deprived of joy. This joy springs only from the knowledge that you possess the virtues.

This sentiment could feel self-righteous to me – the idea that your own knowledge will bring joy. Looking a bit more, I interpret this to mean not a knowledge of facts, but a knowledge of ones-self – an understanding of how to change your own emotions. Depending on your own reading of this paragraph, and your definition of “wise” it could mean something completely different.

What Does this Mean for Spark Joy?

To me, it means it’s OK to not know if something will spark joy. The wisdom to know what sparks joy comes with time, practice and experience in understanding what has brought you joy in the past. If you are trying to unclutter and you find yourself unsure if something will bring you joy, it’s OK! Put it aside and think about it again later. For me, this meant growing my understanding over years.

In elementary school, I played the flute. Even though I have no intention of playing again, I held onto my instrument for decades. I had space, and I thought I might use it again. For years that thought – that I could make music whenever I wanted – gave me some form of joy. This year, something changed and I realized it was the thought of what it could be that was bringing me joy, and not what it was. With that realization, I sold my flute (to a young kid who would use it far more than I was).

Seneca leaves us with a statement on what we could be with enough life experiences:

The wise man is joyful, happy and calm, unshaken, he lives on a plane with the gods.

To me, this isn’t an achievable state, but instead a state we can be one moment, or for one decision. I hope to live in this state for more moments with more practice.

What do you do to practice joy?

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I'm , a full-stack product developer in Salt Lake City, UT. I love enlivening experiences, visualizing data, and making playful websites.

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