The Virtue of Joyfulness

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I don’t like the word “stress”. It’s a Madison Avenue word. It’s something that can be cured with flavoured coffee and bath bubbles.

These words, spoken by the fictional President Josiah Bartlett, are – in my not-so-objective, The-West-Wing-obsessed opinion – one of the best encapsulations of how our society deals with stress.

We don’t!

We all know what it’s like to constantly have too much to do and too little time to do it. We’re constantly overworked, sleep-deprived, trying to catch our breath and fatigued. We live in a society that is overwhelmingly anxious and unhappy.

But perhaps what is more dangerous than all of that is our acceptance of these levels of stress as normal. Getting by on four hours of sleep and bucketfuls of coffee is something of a badge of honour in many circles. In a world where there are so many things to do, if you’re getting enough sleep, you’re probably just not doing enough. Or that’s what we’re encouraged to believe anyway.


Perhaps it’s the bravado which comes with being young and feeling like my body would function perfectly even if I were to feed it tupperware, but I’ve always been rather blasé about the potentially damaging effects of stress on my physical health. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve started to realise the toll stress can take on your spiritual health, if left unmanaged.

The last month or so, for me, has been rather stressful, with challenges presenting themselves in pretty much every aspect of my life. My immediate response was to respond to the problem(s) through a frenzy of action. Like so many of us, I neglected to acknowledge and manage the stress that these challenges were causing me because of an underlying belief that feeling that level of stress is just a part and parcel of adult life.

The turning point for me came a few days ago when I was catching up with one of my best friends. I’d been walking around for a week in a constant state of anxiety and was completely exhausted – physically, mentally and emotionally. My friend was dealing with a difficult problem too. There I sat, trying to offer advice and support but, try as I might, everything that came out of my mouth seemed to be anything but loving and supportive! Too emotionally drained myself, I was unable to muster the patience or clarity of thought needed to find the right words. My advice ended up being abrupt, cold and rather insensitively-worded.

And that’s when my mind was drawn back to the following words by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, on the importance of joyfulness:

I want you to be happy … to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you. The Promulgation of Universal Peace

Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded. We seem better able to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness. But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings. Paris Talks

Joyfulness is a virtue. When we are joyful, others are made joyful too. If we’re joyful, we’re better able to apply our skills and talents for the wellbeing of others. Joyfulness awakens us to the spiritual realities of our physical existences and draws us to a state of higher consciousness.

And like all other virtues, joyfulness is a habit that needs to be practised. It’s not a passive emotion of happiness that you feel in response to a life of ease and comfort but an attitude that you must mindfully exert in spite of your circumstances.

Stress is clearly affecting my spiritual health and, consequently, my ability to grow spiritually. Physically speaking, my body’s quite resilient (famous last words, anyone?) but my spirit’s inability to process the emotional tupperware that I inflict upon it has become quite apparent! And so I’ve resolved to stop accepting these unhealthy levels of stress as normal and as necessary to a full and meaningful life. I’ve resolved to practice joyfulness.

I’m going to begin with this approach to joyfulness, as attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, not with dull resignation, but with radiant acquiescence, one cannot attain … freedom. The Divine Art of Living

What about you? What are some of the ways you practise joyfulness in the face of life’s major stresses? Please feel free to share your favourite prayers and quotes – I’d love to hear from you!

About the Author

Preethi

In her professional life, Preethi has dabbled in various combinations of education, community development and law. At heart, though, she's an overgrown child who thinks the world is one giant playground. She's currently on a quest to make learning come alive for young people and to bring the world's stories and cultures to them, with educational resources from One Story Classroom.

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Discussion 13 Comments

  1. Hi Preethi,

    this is the third time in my life I experience a burnout. my first was when I was 21, and it was deep dark depression, where I would sit on the couch, unable to look after myself: cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning up after myself. Luckily I could go back to my parents who did not ask questions, only encouraged me to go to the daily therapy sessions and who took over the physical caring for me.
    The second time was when i was 35. I could not afford to be catatonic and I realised from the beginning that if I was not careful I would go into the same kind of almost catatonic depression. I could not afford proper treatment so I did a lot on my own. It was bad, really bad. I re evaluated all my values, trying them out, asking myself is this what I believe or is it because someone else believes? Of course that also affected my faith and the values in the writings of the bahai faith (I have been a Bahai since I was 17).
    The third time is now. most of the time I am not depressed but I am tired….. dog tired.

    I now know that at least part of the depression could be inherited and could be linked to low serotonin, it is possible that my body just does not make enough of this. I have also recently found out that I am HSP (Highly sensitive person). From a young age I was taught to be tough, to face life and get on with it. Unfortunately that meant that I forced myself so often to ignore my boundaries and limits, that finally I did not recognise these limits anymore and kept on going over them. For years I have lived on willpower. I have accepted jobs that would give me more stress, in environments that are not very HSP friendly.

    Throughout all this, I have learned how important it is to keep a joyful heart. After my first depression, once I was able to participate with society more, I started to make lists, every day, of things I was happy and hankful about, or at least not unhappy about (if it was a day when everything felt flat and grey). Thankfulness can lead to joy or can be a result of joy. And I mean true thankfulness. Not just: I have to feel thankful so… But making a list does help. I did this faithfully for a year, and by that time it had become a habit.

    If I had known earlier that I was HSP, that I was not just weird, or something wrong with me, just that I was a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, I would have started to live my life accordingly. Would have worked less, earned then less money but would have found a way to deal with that.

    Knowing your limits is also very important if you want to be joyful. Accepting yourself and your limits for what you are helps. It does help also to have a sense of humor, sometimes my thoughts became so desperate that they became really absurd and I had to laugh (e.g. I would sometimes wake up with the feeling and the thought: nobody likes me. This would go on and on and I would find consciously or subconsciouly proofs for that throughout the day. One day I was home and the cat in the house did not want to be cuddled by me. I thought: see! even the cat doesn’t like me anymore! As soon as I realised what I was thinking I had to laugh!).

    Be careful with stress…. a healthy dose of stress can be good but if you constantly ignore your limits the stress will go in your body and finally in your mind and may lead to deep depression or at least a burnout. Meditation is very good, imagining the words I am closer than your life vein can help when you feel very unloved. Look at some of the headings of the hidden words. I had a tendency to focus on those like: O moving form of dust or other ones which are not very inspiring. I taught myself to focus on headings like Oh friend!
    I also taped some of the writings which gave me inspiration. Which made me feel loved by God. I would sit in the bus to work and play them on my walkman over and over again, not consciously listening to them, but in a kind of dreamy mode. I found later that I remembered phrases of these passages quite spontaneously.

    Take time to be alone with yourself, just like is adviced in the writings. I need also time to just sit and stare out of the window, to daydream. So I need to take time out, pencil that kind of time in for myself, especially when I have been socially very active or have been working very focussed for a long time. If you feel deeply unhappy, acknowledge that feeling. If you feel you must cry, don’t try immediately to shout over it, don’t become anxious because you cannot feel happy. Sometimes it is time to cry, sometimes it is time to say stop to yourself. Don’t say stop too soon. Be as gentle with yourself as you can, especially when you are overstressed,
    There were times that I could not feel Gods love. There are often times like that. I felt for a time as if there was a glass wall or ceiling between me and God. Luckily the writings tell us that God always is there, that He is closer than our life vein. And that it is understandable that it is more difficult for us, who are children of the half light, to not always be aware of that. It helped me to realise that what I experienced was understood by God and also, that it was not necessarily Reality. I learned from the writings that it had to do with being part of the material world, by having a material body. But in Reality, God made me exactly as I am at this moment because He loves me and knew always that He loves me, just like He loves the rest of humanity. (the Bible says: even the hairs on your head are counted….). The greatest joy is to know that you are loved, that even when you can’t love yourself, you know that God loves you, that He is aware of you, very much so, and is your Friend, even when you cannot be a friend to yourself or when the world feels like a desolate place.

    thanks for addressing this issue!

    Janine van Rooij (the Netherlands).

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Janine! There are so many amazing insights in your comment – I’m not sure where to start! It’s so true what you said, that stress and a lack of joyfulness begin on an emotional level and then begin to affect you even intellectually – shaping your perceptions of the world around you and of spiritual realities too (e.g. not feeling God’s love). Which is why, I’m realising, joyfulness is such an important virtue to be practising. It’s a habit that we have to slowly develop to increase our resilience to life’s tests.

      And like you’ve said, prayer, meditation and referring to the Writings are probably the best ways to develop that habit. Stress and unhappiness has a way of shaping the way we think and we need to constantly be recalibrating that with reference to the Writings so we eliminate thoughts and habits that are just unhealthy and self-destructive. I love the quotes you’ve used! They’re incredibly powerful.

      Thanks so much Janine!

    2. Thank-you so much for this wonderful post. It’s helped me gain perspective and kindle a spark of joy in my heart at a time when I feel physically and emotionally drained. We are so blessed with this beautiful Faith 🙂

  2. Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, not with dull resignation, but with radiant acquiescence, one cannot attain … freedom.

    I really need time to contemplate on this. sometimes, I can feel the advantages of restraining myself from arguing, but there I should really understand this.

    Thank you for this.

  3. What about you? What are some of the ways you practise joyfulness in the face of life’s major stresses? Please feel free to share your favourite prayers and quotes – I’d love to hear from you!

    I feel that sometimes you simply cannot be joyful. I do not currently feel joyful and I make no apology for it. I have had a knock back and am isolating myself in the house and in my bed. My energy, my joy has been drained from me and I feel very low. I feel that I need time to recuperate. I feel so distressed that my body feels physical pain and I feel unable to function as normal.

    I recently read this from Ruhiyyih Khanum, Priceless Pearl, p.45

    “Many times when Shoghi Effendi was intensely distressed, I saw him go to bed, refusing to eat or drink, refusing to talk, rolled under his covers, unable to do anything but agonize, like someone beaten to the ground by heavy rain; this condition sometimes lasted for days, until forces within himself would adjust the balance and set him on his feet again. He would be lost in a world of his own where no one could follow.”

    While on the one hand, we are asked to be joyful, suffering and pain cannot be avoided in this life, I feel. If we pretend to ourselves and others that everything is hunky dory, a kind of jolly hockey sticks mentality, then I believe that we do ourselves and others an injustice. Even the Guardian had his share of hard times, when he had to retreat, agonize and regain his equilibrium. Why should we be any different?

    I also read this quote from ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Star of The West, Vol VII, No.11, p.108:

    “How could the (God’s) teachers teach and guide others in the way if they themselves did not undergo every species of suffering to which other human beings are subjected?”

    I have read this about the importance of getting enough sleep:

    “There are very few people who can get along without eight hours sleep. If you are not one of those, you should protect your health by sleeping enough. The Guardian himself finds that it impairs his working capacity if he does not try and get a minimum of seven or eight hours.”

    Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p.291

    Here is another quote:

    “… being happy (does not) mean that there are periods of deep grief when, like the Guardian, we wrap ourselves in a blanket, pray and supplicate, and give ourselves time for healing in preparation for the next great effort.”

    Compilations, Quickeners of Mankind, p.117

    Here are some more:

    “In times of disappointment, stress and anxiety, which we must inevitably encounter, we should remember the sufferings of our departed Master.”

    Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Funds and Contributions, p.6

    “I am bound with my lectures and courses and feel sometimes depressed.”

    Shoghi Effendi, Blessings Beyond Measure, pp. 85-86

    “… as we suffer these misfortunes we must remember that the Prophets of God Themselves were not immune from these things which men suffer. They knew sorrow, illness and pain too. They rose about these things through Their spirits, and that is what we must try and do too, when afflicted.”

    Shoghi Effendi, Directives of the Guardian, p.68

    “We must not only be patient with others, infinitely patient, but also with our own poor selves, remembering that even the Prophets of God sometimes got tired and cried out in despair.”

    Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 456

    I feel that I am currently crying out in despair. I have had a very hard life and I sometimes despair that it can and will get any better. Most recently yet another knock back has come my way.

    At times like this I tend to retreat and turn to the writings. Here are some more:

    “Forget yourself. God’s help will surely come! When you call on the Mercy of God waiting to reinforce you, your strength will be tenfold.”

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.38

    “Know thou that God is with thee under all conditions, and that He guardeth thee from the changes and chances of this world and hath made thee a handmaid in His mighty vineyard…”

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, p.122

    “The darkness of this gloomy night shall pass away. Again the Sun of Reality will dawn from the horizon of the hearts.”

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Vol 9, No. 13, p.141

    “With all my soul and spirit, I am thy companion at all moments. Know this of a certainty!”

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Vol. 3, p. 557-8

    “To be approved of God alone should be one’s aim.”

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Vol. 6, No. 6, p.44

    “Who is it that can protect you?… None, except God, the Almighty, the All-Glorious, the Beneficient.”

    Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p.45

    “… and he that placeth his complete trust in God, God shall, verily, protect him from whatsoever my harm him, and shield him from the wickedness of every evil plotter.”

    Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p.233

    These quotes give hope in bad times. They reassure us that things can and will get better, if we turn to God and rely on Him. They reassure us that we are not alone in our suffering, that even the Prophets of God and the Guardian had to suffer and cried out in pain and distress. I am also thinking of the Tablet of Ahmad: “Remember My days during thy days, and My distress and banishment in this remote prison.” I have found the Tablet of Ahmad to be very helpful.

    I discovered a link on the web where you can request prayers:

    http://www.RequestPrayers.com/

    I intend to do this again now as I am feeling so low. I believe in the power of prayer.

    Greetings and love to you all!!!

  4. Apologies that I misquoted one of the quotes above and omitted the word “not”. Here is the correct quote:

    “… being happy (does not) mean that there are not periods of deep grief when, like the Guardian, we wrap ourselves in a blanket, pray and supplicate, and give ourselves time for healing in preparation for the next great effort.”

    Compilations, Quickeners of Mankind, p.117

    “Do thou reckon thyself only a puny form when within thee the universe is folded?”

    Baha’u’llah, Seven Valleys, p.34

    “To engage in some profession is highly commendable, for when occupied with work one is less likely to dwell on the unpleasant aspects of life.”

    Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p.175

  5. Just finished reading the blog about participating in blogs so here goes…

    I have often felt like our stress filled lives are contrary to the faith. I always feel busy & like my to-do list is ever-growing… And often contemplate -what if I had time to really pray every morning & evening, and take time to meditate, and my obligatory prayer and just read the writings for my own personal enrichment… This feels like my to do list doubling – but if we take a step back and remember that this guidance for the habits we should have then maybe my spiritual life would benefit, I could be more virtuous… Things like being a happy and joyful being or having a radiant heart or a countenance wreathed in smiles would not feel so far away. And with these added virtues, my to do list would still grow but I would feel better about it. Or I might even learn my own limits and make a realistic to do list that includes taking care of myself instead of everything else!

    1. Yay for participating and commenting 😀

      You know, everything you’ve said is SO true. We forget how much we need to be focusing on prayer and meditation and often it feels like something else we don’t have enough time for. A friend I was talking to just yesterday was giving me advice on not taking on too much and something he said which I’ve been thinking about since is that finding yourself rushing to do a million things and not having time by yourself to just sit, pray and reflect is an indicator of imbalance. Which is interesting, because you could be doing a million things with the best intentions (service etc) but there’s no balance to it if you start to neglect your own spiritual health which is the basis of everything else. It’s definitely a balance I’m trying to learn how to strike. We have an article by Collis coming up about precisely this topic – stay tuned! Thanks for stopping by, Niki 🙂

  6. Thank you all for your comments on this topic, I’ve found them so helpful in different ways.

    And what a wonderful article- I’ve bookmarked it to read further and I will meditate on it too.

  7. I have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I am 79 years old. So I consider that both aging and the general physical condition of my body contribute to periods of depression. In spite of the fact that I have been a Baha’i for years, have studied the Writings quite in depth, love to pray and serve, I find that I am returning, perhaps due to factors from my upbringing, and stresses I have experienced, to periods of impatience, negativity and depression. Thanks to acupuncture and taking supplements rather than a multitude of drugs, the symptoms of Parkinson’s are not physically evident, but in reading about the condition depression is often experienced. My greatest grief is that this deters me from being able to serve the Faith as I would like to in this time when the development of relationships is so important. I find the process of developing and maintaining relationships is very challenging.
    One reason I’m sharing all this so that we might all become aware of the varying conditions with which our brothers and sisters may be dealing. Adjusting to this recurring pattern in my life is in itself difficult.
    A quiet time every morning for reading, journaling, writing, praying is essential for me and I welcomed the comments others have made regarding these practicies. Also getting sufficient sleep is crucial and that in itself is an adjustment for me. Giving up the assumption that there is a singular answer out there somewhere that will solve my problems, is very helpful. Taking on that I must day-by-day enjoy the better moments and just be in the ‘now’ accepting whatever there is; not looking back nor forward too far but being present to my body, my interpretations, my ability to be thankful ‘now’ are crucial and give me relaxation into receiving energy for the next step.
    Thanks so much for all the sharing.

  8. Thank you so much for these beautiful quotations. I will use them all on our next devotional on Happiness and contentment.
    Love
    Bita

  9. Thank you for sharing wonderful in sites and thoughts. You have help me gather myself and you have helped me to re-plan the seed to continuo to grow again. Most of all, I must re-knew my joy so my children can re-knew theirs and allow their character to continuo to flourish even more.

    With much love,

    Life of beloveth Unity – Vida

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