Psychotherapy is sometimes accused of being focused on illness. That it doesn’t appreciate the whole of life because it has developed from treating sick people rather than healthy people.

I think this is partly unfair. Medical doctors don’t get criticised for focusing on sick people and I think it denigrates the compassion that can be the motive for wanting to alleviate pain and suffering. I also want to note that there are some psychotherapies that have responded to this criticism – primarily the ‘Third Force’ psychotherapies that emerged after World War 2, mostly in the US. The most famous result (though not the best in my opinion) is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which isn’t based on sickness.

I think it is also fair. The emphasis on diagnosis shows the focus on the problems rather than the solutions. Sometimes (in less enlightened places) psychotherapists may even refer to their clients as “patients” (thankfully this is rare, but that it still happens says much).

So in this post I’d like to imagine a therapy of my own that starts with the positive.

Seeing

Let’s imagine that this therapy is discovered by a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, middle-aged Australian: let’s call him Nave. Let’s imagine that Nave has so far faithfully followed the social expectation that prevail in his (sub-)culture. He has done OK at school, gone to Uni, found a respected full-time job, married. He isn’t unhappy with his life, in fact he is aware that it is quite privileged and that he is luckier than most.

Then one day, he sees. We don’t know why – it is a day like most others. But this day, he sees. He sees a mother feeding her child and that they both are radiating a quiet joy. He meets a friend recently recovered from an illness glowing with health. Then he sees a family having a great time at a picnic in the park. What Nave sees is that joy is real.

Reflecting

Nave begins to think deeply about what he has seen – and why he hasn’t noticed them.

The first thing he sees is that joy is real.
So, he sets out to find the things we can do to increase the amount of joy in our lives.

As Nave reflects on his experience he comes to some conclusions:

  1. We can see that the person is part of their particular environment.
  2. Joy is a particular relation of the person and their environment.
  3. That while intentionality is indispensable it can also destroy joy. There is a place for intentionality and a time for it to be let go. Put another way: joy is a particular kind of self-forgetfulness: when joyous we are not pre-occupied with ourselves and our own concerns.
  4. Joy is a process we can follow in our own experience : from rest to disturbance, to general scanning, to specific focus, to initial encounter, to thorough encounter, to satisfaction, to growth.

Some Implications

  • The match between the person and their situation can use intelligence (discerning what is life-giving and what is not). Joy requires knowledge of ourselves and our needs as well as the environment plus the ability to match these.
  • In this sense joy is active (though the “action” might be taking a break).
  • One of the strange things that intrigues Nave is that joy isn’t always associated with ‘positive’ experiences or emotions. Sitting with a grieving friend can be difficult. Helping someone sort through a problem can be hard work. But both can lead to joy. Nave concludes that joy has more to do with being open to experience and flowing with it than how ‘positive’ the experience is – at least most of the time. Joy has more to do with authenticity than pleasantness. Compassion and joy can be together harmoniously.

This is my attempt to sketch a therapy for joy. It is both the path and the goal. What do you think? I’m very keen to hear any comments at all that you may have? Do you think this is mis-directed? Do you think there are major oversights? Are there some bits you like and others you don’t? Any and all comments most welcome.


Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?

The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.

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6 Comments to “A Joyous Therapy”

  1. Sarah Luczaj says:

    Hi Evan,

    agree with all your musings on the nature of joy, but am confused about how you intend to construct a new therapy around them?

    In my experience as a therapist, joy is always part of the journey, it’s always about increasing joy, and the connection of joy with authenticity means it sometimes arises in the midst of real misery early on.

    Therapy is, to varying degrees, about creating a space for the client to be authentic. (Therapist of course has to be too!)Joy can arise as a part of that.

  2. Chris Edgar says:

    Hi Evan — I know that the most joy I’ve ever experienced has happened in the moments after I’ve plunged completely into a wound that I’ve been avoiding. I had this experience, for example, at a workshop I took last weekend. The therapist working with me very quickly put me into a regressed state where I was screaming “there’s nobody there!” After I emerged from that state I felt at my most connected with others and with life in general.

  3. Evan says:

    Hi Sarah, yes, I guess you’re right: all therapy is about joy in some way. Like you I also authenticity is part of the story for both people.

  4. Evan says:

    Hi Chris, like you I know the elation of having a wound healed. For me there have also been times less directly concerned with healing – following visualisations and so on. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Barbara says:

    Hi Evan,

    The notion of joyful therapy sounds good, but not true enough in my experience. It sounds too close to positive thinking, a concept I find to be an overlay, veiling problems/difficulties. The unsaid directive, put on a happy face, rather than an authentic happy face. I believe the entire reason for therapy for most people is to be released from what is holding them back. (Not the only reason, but as you know therapy is generally a big investment and I don’t mean only monetarily or predominantly.) No matter how you look at holding back there is at minimum some form of restraint aka loss of freedom, then to the other end of possible severe bondage.

    Whether one likes it or not fighting is required to gain or regain freedom. Since the natural flow of joy has no element of fighting as far as I can tell, whether it be the ‘good fight’ or not, I think the joy can only be arrived at once the pieces of restriction begin to move.

    If the goal is for joy in therapy or as a result of therapy, as both you and Sarah have indicated, it can and does arise in the course of the work. In fact, I feel it is the element that compels one to continue therapeutic work, for without it the necessary fight(s) can seem pointless. But the fight itself? There is a seriousness one must embrace and employ dealing with detrimental issues and they must somehow be detrimental issues or one wouldn’t be or feel held back. In therapy I find it difficult to remain anchored to what is causing me pain and remain joyful traversing that course.

    If I do find myself ‘joyful’ as I confront a restriction, it is generally not genuine joy, but something I am telling myself to relieve the pain. Meaning, I want the joy, but the work I have done is not suffient in some way to foster, support, generate, or more corectly, release my joy, which is and has to be spontaneous for it to be real. Applied joy reveals itself soon enough to be what it is. I find I’m kidding myself or maybe giving myself a reprieve, even a necessary reprieve, until I can take the next steps toward real. The other element to this joy I’m telling myself I have or need to have, is an illusion, and in part, what got me to therapy in the first place.

    That’s not to say there are no joyful moments, there really are, but I have not found them to be in conjunction with or simultaneously to what may be very difficult awareness. Joy after the relief, yes. During or throughout, not as likely, if at all. I guess it could also be said more simply, joy is natural, fighting is not, although one definitely leads to the other in therapeutic work.

    The other joy position I can see is the anticipation of resulting joy as catalyst. In that case I guess you could say one starts out with at least a joyful frame of mind. I do think mostly all people doing purposeful therapeutic work have adopted that position, whether knowing it or not.

  6. Evan says:

    Hi Barbara, many thanks for your thoughtful and thought-through comment. My conviction is that authenticity is the path to joy – or perhaps an indispensable part of the experience. Though calling it ‘joyous therapy’ might be a mistake. It might be better to emphasise the path (authenticity) than the goal – or at least this is how it would be usually understood. I do think that therapy is almost always dealing with out constraints (or the constraints in our environment which we need to respond to).
    Like you, I think it is the experience of the joy as we do the work that keeps us going. And I do agree that there is seriousness or focus that is required. It can be hard work in my experience (or the hard work is at least part of the experience).
    I do think the joy needs to be genuine. For me it has come as I have realised that the parts of me that were fighting each other can co-operate or are aspects of each other.
    And I also agree that we usually enter therapy expecting (or at least with a glimmer of hope for) joy.

    Many thanks for your comment. It is as with all the comments you have left on my blog insightful, personal and too the point. You certainly add value when you comment!

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