Forget Happiness, Let Joy Find You

In the Declaration of Independence, such a blessing in other ways, Jefferson dedicated us to "the pursuit of happiness." A misdirection, say the authors of Return to Joy. According to Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker, happiness is an entertainment, shallow, fickle, short-lived, a perfect complement to a consumer society. The real thing is joy or what other writers have called ecstasy or bliss.
As another recent book says, "what a huge joke it would be" if bliss "is not something you 'attain' or 'pursue,' much less 'merit,' but something you 'notice' or 'let happen' or 'get out of the way of'."
But Harvey and Baker go further. In Return to Joy they make clear that the path to joy leads through sorrow or grief. If we deny and run away from grief, in the way that many now deny man-made climate change, then we can never find the path to bliss.
This little book (its text is just 105 pages) contains the wisdom of two long-time searchers. Its rich brevity reminds me of a line of one of the founding fathers, who apologized for writing a long letter because he lacked the time to write a short one.
The authors define joy, but what is even more important, they give specific examples, including the Dalai Lama, Jane Goodall, Tina Turner, the Taliban survivor Malala whose offense was promoting education for females, Pope Francis (author of the encyclical Laudato Si), and others.
The tenor of the book can be surmised from a list of authors and speakers to whom Baker and Harvey keep returning: not only the Dalai Lama, but also concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl, Gandhi, Jung, the poet Mary Oliver, Rumi, and Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.
This reviewer heard Andrew Harvey lecture on Rumi in 1993, and now reads Carolyn Baker's daily digest of news, along with their books. Harvey gives workshops on "scared activism"; and Baker, on the spiritual and cultural transformation that could slow down and make less severe such challenges as global warming. Both are authors of many books.
Return to Joy is a deft interweaving of Jungian shadow-work and Harvey's brand of activism. It is not that we haven't heard about joy, as distinct from happiness.. In 1982, for example, Robert Johnson gave us Ecstasy: Understanding the Psychology of Joy. But the new book by Baker and Harvey brings the idea up to date, keeping in mind a wide range of sacred cultures, and discussing many kinds of joy, and they do so with unmistakable bliss as authors. The book is a good example of one writer inspiring another, writers who overlap in spirit, but who bring somewhat different sensibilities to the party.
Many writers today have a dire view of the human future, but what is appealing about Return to Joy is that it shows a way that is rewarding regardless of the future. If the future is as "dark" as the gold refined by confronting the human shadow, then the path of bliss would be necessary; and if the future turns out to be less distressing, then that path would serve us well in the present.
The book starts with a Foreword by Francis Weller, a northern California psychotherapist who is one of the wise people of our time. As a specialist in griefwork, he seems an odd choice for a book about joy, until you realize that, like the authors, he scorns what they call a "flatline culture." Their basic message is that if you reject the sorrows, you do not experience the bliss.
Inside any culture, life seems natural, until you enter another and experience culture shock. Return to Joy is subversive, insofar as it looks beyond "happiness," calls for "simplicity" in contrast to accumulating the toys of a consumer culture, and in general keeps referring to a realm beyond ordinary reality.
In the lingo of this book, that realm is "sacred" and also "divine." But it's not necessary to invoke the heavens to experience the wisdom of silence, of not being endlessly entertained and distracted. It's possible to imagine that humans have many potential powers beyond what our culture values, rewards, and is generally aware of. The authors praise practices of exploring the unconscious, through dream journals and other forms of expanded consciousness. Maybe what we call "sacred" is a human facility from which our culture keeps deflecting us.
Return to Joy has a cetacean on the cover, an animal that lives in pods not as an isolated individual, has no job (unless in Sea World captivity), wears no clothes, doesn't cook, is thought by humans to play often, deploys no weapons, communicates in a language we don't yet understand. If we attribute joy to this animal, we must recognize that its life-world is very unlike the one we have built.
Like the English romantics, Baker and Harvey believe, or at least their title suggests, that we once experienced joy and now can "return" to it. (Or perhaps they are referring less to infancy than to early humanity.) In any case, joy is not a state to be found for the first time, but to go back to, as if it were a home from which we have wandered or been ensorcelled away.