The lies we tell ourselves about joy

Our hearts are hungry for joy. We think it is our circumstances that need changing, but joy goes well beyond our circumstances as this powerful and joy-filled video illustrates:

As children we looked to all sorts of things for joy fulfilment. I gave some examples from my own life in the previous post.

The other huge area where this expresses itself is with romantic love. For me as a teenager growing up in an all boys school in England that was a huge subject to deal with. And it still is for anyone growing up.
As the poem says:


"In spring a young man's thoughts turn to love.
For summer, autumn, winter see above!"

At the beginning of the 20th century Freud described religiosity as pent-up sexuality. However, it is probably more accurate to say that sexuality is pent-up religiosity and the desire for spiritual experience.

Teenage longings and crushes, popular music and culture, are full of this desire for the perfect lover who will meet all my needs.

For me it was also combined with a love of Hindi music that created an intense longing for a combination of the perfect girl and a future place to call home. Well I eventually found the girl and have been blessed with 4 children. But as good and wonderful as that is there is still in my heart unfulfilled longing for joy.

There is a joy vacuum, a black hole, that nothing in this world seems able to fill. Tim Keller has helped me enormously with understanding this. He talks of 2 categories of what the human heart does to deal with this hunger for joy. He calls them naive primary strategies and precarious secondary strategies for joy. In this post we will look at the first.

Naive primary strategies.
Assuming that we have not had an enormously unhappy childhood,  most of us start out believing that it is a relatively simple and straight forward thing to find lasting happiness.

In traditional culture (such as the South Asian one I came from) the basic message is to find happiness you need to take on the role you have been given - or in other words do your duty to find happiness. Work hard, be a good person, be a good husband or wife, a good son or daughter. It is in assuming the role you have been given that you will find happiness.

In more contemporary cultures and so prevalent through popular media the message is "you will be happy if you create the role in society you want. Discover or create your dream and then go make it happen." That is the path to lasting happiness.
We have already shown how our personal circumstances only account for about 10% of our overall level of happiness. But in the long run it is having to face up to failure and success that show these primary strategies for success are naive.

Eventually in life we have to face disappointment and failure (see How To Fail and Lose Well Part 1 and Part 2). The first time this dawns on us is maybe, as in my case, when our favourite team loses or we break up with somebody we really care about. As we get older we get very good at hiding from others and even from ourselves, is how absolutely desperate, pointless and meaningless life looks. (Also see 9 Ways To Look At Your Failures With The Eyes of Faith)

The other way this primary strategy for joy lets us down is when success arrives. I remember when I reached my position of becoming a consultant psychiatrist in 2001. In many ways I had reached the pinnacle of what had been a goal and dream for more than 20 years since starting medical school. And yet with that achievement the overall sense I had at the time was of emptiness - is there more to life than this? My experience is far from unique. Those who have experienced tremendous success also know that it is not enough.

In 2003 Johnny Wilkinson won the Rugby World Cup for England with a drop kick in the last minute of the game. Everything he had been working for in his career had come to fruition. He says in his autobiography, Tackling Life,

"Within hours of that last kick I was tumbling out of control.... I am only as good as my last kick..... I was afflicted with a powerful fear of failure and I didn't know how to free myself from it. The better things were the more I had to lose."

There is incredible emptiness even in the greatest success. (For more on this see How Would You Define Success Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).
Thankfully it does not end there.
In the next post we will look at what Keller calls precarious unstable secondary strategies to deal with the disappointment of not finding joy. Once we are able to identify these tendencies in ourselves we can do something to experience joy and fulfilment with appropriate expectation.
For now here is a question for you: what are some of the lies we tell ourselves in our quest for happiness and fulfilment? What examples come to mind for you?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “The lies we tell ourselves about joy

  1. You mention Keller’s help in this article Sunil. Was this from a particular book, or from listening to his messages? If this was from a particular book, could you point me in its direction please. Thank you, Colin

    • Hi Colin
      It is from an Open Forum talk done by Tim Keller in October 2002. It is expanded on in his book “Counterfeit Gods.”
      Kind regards
      Sunil