Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Experience of Joy: Interview with Brent Robbins

The following is an interview in the magazine, The Point:

Visit your favorite bookstore, in person or online, and search for titles about depression; more than 21,000 are on Now look for titles about feeling joy; 158 are on Amazon. What makes you joyful? Is it similar for everyone? How do you attain joy? Questions like these, and the lack of research, led Brent Robbins, Ph.D., director of Point Park’s psychology program, to begin to study “joy” in 1998. He completed his dissertation on it, has been exploring the subject ever since, and is writing a book to (ultimately) help people find it. The Point talked with Dr. Robbins about his research.

What prompted you to study joy?

BR: In my first-year doctoral program, this 21-year-old woman comes in. When it’s the first day, you ask what the presenting problem is: ‘What brings you here?’ First thing out of her mouth was ‘I don’t have any joy in my life.’ That was how she presented her problem. My first thought was, I never heard that before. My second thought was, I don’t know what you are supposed to do in therapy to help people find joy. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t say anything about joy deficit disorder. There’s depression, there’s anxiety disorders, there’s schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, but nothing about joy. There’s nothing about how to have a better life, how to build your strengths. It’s all about how to get rid of symptoms.

Given that your research was just beginning, how did you ultimately help your patient?

: I went back to this person and asked her, ‘What do you imagine joy would be and what do you think you need to do in order to find it?’ We started to explore that. In that case, it was a two-year process where her symptoms in the beginning of her therapy ultimately led her to the realization that she wanted to have a child. She wanted to be a mother, but she didn’t feel like she was worthy of being a mother. That was all unconscious. In the beginning she wasn’t explicitly aware of that, but we worked through all that; she decided that’s what she wanted to do. Her desire to have joy in her life was to have a little one. That’s what it was for her; maybe it would be different for somebody else.

What have you learned in your research to define joy?

BR: Joy seems to include both elation on one hand and relaxed serenity on the other. When you ask people to describe times when they felt joy, you get something along that continuum. Some people talk about hanging out with friends by the campfire, feeling at home, relaxed and at peace. Others talk about the buildup in tension: the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl or they’re walking with their boyfriend and he turns around and proposes suddenly. There’s this tension, then ‘boom,’ the surprise, and then there’s elation. They are not thinking about what’s coming next, they’re not thinking about what’s happened. They’re completely in that present moment.

You described one aspect of the feeling of joy as fecundity. Explain that.

BR: It has this sense of plentifulness. There is so much to see, so much to feel in this moment. It will never end. It will always be enough, and I never need anything more than what I’m having right now. That’s fecundity, and that’s a core thematic element of joy. It’s all throughout the experiences of joy.

You believe there is a connection between meditation and joy?

BR: Depression and anxiety is almost the antithesis of joy. It’s when people get caught up in their thoughts. When people describe doing meditation, and having those moments of feeling fully present in the moment, it’s almost indistinguishable from what people describe when they talk about joy, especially the serene version of joy. Really what people are looking for, when they’re looking to be healed of their suffering, is not so much getting rid of their symptoms but to cultivate a life of joy.

You stated, “If joy becomes a goal in and of itself, it becomes strangely elusive.” Why?

BR: It goes back to the time consciousness of joy, the temporality of joy. It’s about being present in the moment. A goal is something that’s happening in the future. So if you say, ‘I’m going to work on having joy in the future,’ you’re already out of the present moment.

Can someone be joyful alone?

BR: Yes, very much so. We were just doing joy experiences in my Methods class, and one of the students was talking about dancing in the rain by herself, a wonderful image. When people have a state of joy, they feel emotionally connected to people in their lives, even when they’re not physically present. That’s an important distinction. You can experience joy when you’re physically alone, but I think it’s really hard to feel it when you’re lonely. And you can be lonely in a room full of people.

You also noted, for adults, joy is rare. Why?

BR: I think what happens is when you’re an adult, you have a lot of responsibilities; you have children, you have jobs. At any particular moment in time, it’s very difficult to be fully present in the moment because there’s always something else that needs to be done.

Tell me about the book you are working on.

BR: It’s tentatively titled The Joyful Life - An Existential, Humanistic Approach to Positive Psychology. The goal of that is really to provide guidelines for people on what kinds of lives people live who really experience a lot of joy in their life. What does it look like, so you can know if you already have it; then you can just appreciate that you have it. If you don’t, you have some idea about what you’re shooting for. There will be information about how to get that; how to get from where you are to a more joyful life.

What gives you joy?

BR: My sons, my wife. Having kids can be the most stressful moments of our lives, but it’s also the moments of the greatest joy. Also, I’m a spiritual person, and I have a relationship with God. It’s in my deepening relationship with God that I think I have some of my greatest joys. It’s not politically correct sometimes to talk about your relationship with God, but it’s important for me.

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