Living with Joy

Joy Clarkson came to Scotland from America five years ago. Her new book ‘Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life’ is a Faith-inspired guide to the brighter side of life.

Are you ever suspicious of people who seem a little too happy?

It’s a reaction with which Joy Clarkson is familiar. Her book’s very title was coined by a disgruntled social media user, who responded to an innocuous post of hers by saying: ‘This is disgusting. You are so aggressively happy.’ She took it as a badge of honour.

“There’s an assumption that if people are happy they haven’t experienced many difficult things in life, or they’re callous to the pain of others, or they are suppressing some kind of profound sadness,” said Clarkson, who has just completed a PhD in Theology at the University of St Andrews. “And one of the things I wanted to explore with this book is the idea that true happiness is a much harder, but a much deeper thing to cultivate, than just allowing yourself to relax into cynicism.”

She acknowledges that a call for aggressive happiness might seem out of sync with the world we live in, that seems to stagger from one disaster to the next.

“Of course people feel that way, because of the environment or because of the dissolution of family or because of a virus or an impending war. There are reasons to feel anxious about the world!” she exclaims.

“But there have been many times when people felt like the world was ending and these difficulties in which we are living are something many generations before have lived.”

And recognising that, she suggests, points towards the conclusion that ‘Okay, if I am a Christian, and I believe that ultimately, God will have the final word, and it will be good, and it will be redemption, then that doesn’t mean my life will be easy. But it won’t fix it for me to do a lot of worrying about it.’

There’s also, she notes, ‘all this language in Scripture about joy and happiness being something that actually protects our Faith. You have these commands to rejoice’ which are especially interesting when ‘our world is so awash with negativity and cynicism’.

Moments of struggle

But even for Joy, happiness hasn’t always come easily.

“The book comes out of two years of my life when I was coming out of a pretty intense period of sadness and confusion about where I was going in life and it’s my attempt to think about what an alternative to that would look like”.

In her own words the book is about doubt as well as Faith and ‘describes a particular period when I had questions, and those questions seemed resolvable, but then felt totally unsolvable once that kind of unexpected death happened.’

“I was just tired and thought, ‘Well, if God wants to seek after me, He will have to’, and to my delight, He did,” she said.

“I feel that God has always met me in doubt. And also that life is more sensible, and more meaningful and makes more sense how to live when I live in the light of faith.”

Despite the 10 chapters in the book drawing from this tricky time in her life she says ‘I love Scotland dearly’.

“I think it is objectively more beautiful than England, you can put that in print,” she said. “And there are things that make me sad or grumpy. That is also what you would say about anyone that you loved, and I feel very privileged to have got to spend time there and to get to know people.”

The Scottish laugh

However, she did identify the Scottish sense of humour as an occasional barrier to happiness.

“I love the sarcastic sense of humour that is particularly strong in Scotland. Although it took me a while to figure out when my friends are making fun of me and when they were being nice! And I think that I really enjoyed that.

“But I also realised humour is a way that we cope with life and gain perspective and keep ourselves from being in despair. But you also need to balance that with the capacity to tell people how you feel.”

Another key presence from her time in Scotland was the huge looming presence of St Andrew’s Cathedral.

“When I first moved to St Andrews, I actually was really put off by the ruins,” she recalls. “I lived right across from them. And it would just make me really sad, because of the sense of it’s just kind of this giant skeleton.”

That changed when she realised all the buildings of St Andrews Old Town are the same dull grey.

“After the Cathedral languished in disrepair for a century the local people began to use the stone to build homes,” she said.

“So, the stones that were used to build the town were blessed stones. The Cathedral gave itself up for this little town. And I think true happiness comes from being like the Cathedral and giving yourself away to others.”

But far from the largest Cathedrals, she suggests, you can find joy in the smallest of gestures.

“This sounds like one of those motivational posters. But I think it’s true!” she said.

“Practice noticing, and being thankful for small things in life. Attending to life and its little details, like the light in the morning, or your cup of coffee, or the way that someone you love stares out a window is one of the things that’s most helped me be joyful.”

Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life by Joy Marie Clarkson is available from all good booksellers.

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