Recently I had the privilege of having dinner with a small group of people. One dinner companion was a sex and relationship therapist with more than twenty years experience seeing clients. Though there were many interesting aspects to the evening’s conversation, one part stuck out to me in particular: the idea that some people are terribly afraid of joy.
Speaking of her experience as a therapist, this woman described clients who almost feel as though joy and happiness are not theirs to be had. Some people, she said, associate joy, happiness and play predominantly with being a child. And if they were raised to act grown-up all the time, and to “not act so silly”, or to “buck up” and overcome something very hard, then some of these people may find it difficult to embrace joy as adults – in or outside of the bedroom. Maybe not all of the time, but perhaps in some key situations in which joy or living more presently in the moment could possibly please them.
Some people feel an enormous conflict between joyfulness and being a grown up such that when they feel extraordinarily happy – or feel a sense that they might – they repress it. They turn away from it. Or else they don’t take the risks in life that would give them remarkable opportunities of happiness.
I thought of people I’ve known over the years who fit this description well. I don’t know why they feel, or have felt, disconnected from smiles or joy (such as whether it was rooted in their parenting or not) but it’s too bad when people distance themselves from joy.
I recall dating someone â€“ in what seems like another lifetime now â€“ who thought I didn’t act my age. He thought that, as an adult, you were somehow supposed to change and to play less often or not like things like diving off of people’s shoulders in a lake. We had such different perspectives on this point and it was a gulf we could not cross, this idea of what it meant to each of us to be an adult.
To me, adulthood was and is a grand adventure: after all, adults often have the resources and autonomy to do what they want, including interesting work and passionate play. To him, I couldn’t say what it meant â€“ but I know what it did not mean. It did not include much of the types of play and joyfulness in which I take pleasure.
The therapist from dinner said that she thought adults needed to do a better job of making adulthood seem interesting and fun so that children and adolescents will want to grow up and create an adulthood that fits them rather than one devoid of joy. The idea is that although responsibility is important, so is emphasizing joy and pleasure, lest we raise children who grow up to expect boring adult lives and then cannot connect with others, or their inner happiness, as a result.
In your own life, consider the ways in which you embrace joy. I hope that you can think of at least one thing that gives you pleasure. Do you enjoy cleaning your car? Playing in a fantasy football league? Dancing salsa?
What brings you feelings of satisfaction down to your core? A good book? Helping your children with their homework? Making love to your partner? Swimming in the ocean? Skinny dipping? Daydreaming of someone you adore? Cooking the perfect white bean soup?
I hope there is something that you feel you can easily accept the pleasures of participating in and that it thrills you to no end. And when it comes to sex, consider ways in which you can think of sex as play, pleasure and enjoyment – and not so much as “work” or as something so performance-focused or goal-oriented. Sex is more than erections, time until ejaculation or whether one had no orgasms, one orgasm or several. Pleasurable sex moves beyond these performance notions and relates, for many people, to joy.
If you would like more ideas for creating pleasure in or out of your sex life, check out my book, Because It Feels Good, or talk to a friend or colleague who is joyful and heartfelt and whose way of embracing life you admire. You can learn a lot from each other over a cup of coffee or tea. Or just look inside yourself and see if there’s something you haven’t done yet that might make you feel very happy, or something you’ve done in the past but would like to do again. Whatever your path, I hope that joy finds you – or that you find it.