“Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We’re afraid that the feeling of joy won’t last, or that there won’t be enough, or that the transition to disappointment (or whatever is in store for us next) will be too difficult. We’ve learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?

If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough. I use the word practicing because the research participants spoke of tangible gratitude practices, more that merely having an attitude of gratitude or feeling grateful. In fact, they gave specific examples of gratitude practices that included everything from keeping gratitude journals and gratitude jars to implementing family gratitude rituals. Actually, I learned the most about gratitude practices and the relationship between scarcity and joy that plays out in vulnerability from the men and women who had experienced some of the most profound losses or survived the greatest traumas. These included parents whose children had died, family members with terminally ill loved ones, and genocide and trauma survivors. One of the questions I’m most often asked is “Don’t you get really depressed talking to people about vulnerability and hearing about people’s darkest struggles?” My answer is no, never. That’s because I’ve learned more about worthiness, resilience, and joy from those people who courageously shared their struggles with me than from any other part of my work. And nothing has been a greater gift to me than the three lessons I learned about joy and light from people who have spent time in sorrow and darkness:

Joy comes to us in moments–ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary. Scarcity culture may keep us afraid of living small, ordinary lives, but when you talk to people who have survived great losses, it is clear that joy is not a constant. Without exception, all the participants who spoke to me about their losses, and what they missed the most, spoke about ordinary moments. “If I could come downstairs and see my husband sitting at the table and cursing at the newspaper…” “If I could hear my son giggling in the backyard…” “My mom sent me the craziest texts–she never knew how to work her phone. I’d give anything to get one of those texts right now.”
Be grateful for what you have. When I asked people who had survived tragedy how we can cultivate and show more compassion for people who are suffering, the answer was always the same: Don’t shrink away from the joy of your child because I’ve lost mine. Don’t take what you have for granted–celebrate it. Don’t apologize for what you have. Be grateful for it and share your gratitude with others. Are your parents healthy? Be thrilled. Let them know how much they mean to you. When you honor what you have, you’re honoring what I’ve lost.
Don’t squander joy. We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen–and they do happen–we are stronger.”