Tapestry

Why this author believes finding happiness is an aggressive act

In her book, Aggressively Happy: A Realist's Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life, author Joy Clarkson reveals how she came up with the title by embracing a teasing insult on Twitter.

'It takes some stubbornness to find joy in this weary old world,' says Joy Clarkson

Joy Clarkson is the author of "Aggressively Happy: A Realist's Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life." (Jacqui Wakelam)

Joy Clarkson gets it – when someone seems consistently happy, it can feel annoying. In the face of all the world's problems, it might even seem inappropriate to maintain a steady contentment. But in her latest book, Aggressively Happy: A Realist's Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life, Clarkson argues that an "aggressive" pursuit of happiness is not only an appropriate response to the weariness of life, it's a necessary one.

Clarkson told Tapestry that she developed a stubborn approach to happiness to help deal with sorrow and mental illness in her own life, but also to help others facing personal hardships.

Joy Clarkson is the books and cultures editor at Plough Quarterly, and has just completed a PhD in theology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Here's some of her conversation with host Mary Hynes.

(Submitted by Joy Clarkson)

In some ways, this is a really strange time to be defending happiness, whether it's being happy within yourself or wanting to spread joy in the world. And I guess we should start with the inevitable pushback. You know, things are pretty desperate right now on so many different fronts. What if happiness is a luxury? What if it's some kind of denial of what's going on in the world? 

Well, you know, the book, I describe it as a realist's guide. And the first chapter of the book is called "Befriending Sadness", because I think that you can never find true joy if you're not also willing to kind of wrestle with the real deep difficulties of life. But something that I think is really important is to know that sadness does not make joy untrue. There's this great quote from Jack Gilbert, where he says [paraphrasing], "to only fix our eyes on injustice is to praise the devil." 

Taking moments to be thankful, to look at goodness and beauty is a way of saying that pain is not the only true thing. And people that I know that are kind of cultivating an "aggressive happiness" or a true joy actually are very practically helping the world around them. So I think that cultivating joy isn't just kind of a selfish thing. It's something that when you look at how unhappy and downtrodden our world is, to have people who have these sensitive, open hearts, who are willing to find joy and be thankful actually adds light and lightness to the world.

I know you've taken some inspiration from G.K. Chesterton on this front. What did Chesterton think of all this in terms of what's the main act and what's the intermission? 

He has this wonderful little quote where he says, "Melancholy should be the innocent interlude, but joy is the permanent pulsation of the soul." And you find this in many of the world's oldest philosophies and theologies – that existence itself is good, and that even to understand evil or brokenness, we have to have this idea of the good and of joy to fall back on. So he has this vision that we should keep the beautiful, the joyful in front of us – not denying sorrow, but in some ways almost intensifying it because we have this vision of what is good and beautiful. 

I find this so interesting because you are not someone whose default position is a kind of saccharine. Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Happiness is something you can find elusive sometimes yourself. 

Absolutely. I talk about this in the book, but my name is kind of a paradox. So my full name is Joy Marie. Obviously Joy means what it means. But Marie comes from mara – sometimes translated as "a sea of sadness." It's what Naomi in the Bible changes her name to, after her life has been really difficult. And so that's always been something that has kind of wrestled in me. I'm quite a melancholic person. Because I've had my own struggles, both in life and with mental health, finding happiness is something of an aggressive act – something that takes grit and determination.

Someone said, 'This is disgusting. You're so aggressively happy!' And I think they were probably teasing me. But I thought, 'You know what? I am aggressively happy.'- Joy Clarkson

You used to live within sight of St Andrew's Cathedral in Scotland, and it first struck you as a pretty depressing set of ruins. I mean, it's just these stones in ruins. How did that impression change for you? Because you now think of it as something generative. You think of it as a life giving place. 

When I first moved to St Andrew's, I lived right across the cathedral and I just felt really sad every time I looked at it because it was what used to be this gorgeous building. All I could see was the kind of tensions of the Reformation and the brokenness, and the sense of a beautiful thing having been destroyed from internal conflicts. But one thing I also noticed was that nobody called the cathedral "the ruins."

So whenever a church is built, especially a cathedral, it's hallowed, it's blessed and consecrated so that the stones are meant to be kind of blessings. And after the cathedral fell into ruins, St Andrew's used the ruins in the town to build a lot of the buildings and cottages. So it kind of has this very uniform look because many of the stones were from the cathedral. And as I thought about kind of the blessedness of my experience at St Andrews, I started to identify it with this sense that the cathedral, very like in Christian liturgy, when you go to take the Eucharist, it says that Christ said, "This is My body, broken for you." And that's very much how I came to imagine the cathedral, it had broken itself, and then given itself to this town so that every house in the town was made of blessed stones. And the final house I lived in before I moved away from St Andrew's was a house that was built with those stones.

The title of your book, Aggressively Happy, that phrase, [began] life as an insult somebody sent your way on Twitter. What was the context for that? 

I don't entirely even remember what I had tweeted about. I'm pretty sure it was about lipstick or tea. But someone just responded and said, "This is disgusting. You're so aggressively happy!" And I think they were probably teasing me. But I thought, "You know what? I am aggressively happy. It takes some stubbornness to find joy in this weary old world." So I just responded, "Thank you so much. I'm adding that to my Twitter bio." It was in my Twitter bio for several years. And then I wrote a book about it. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Written and produced by Kevin Ball.

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