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I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about joy.

Today, for example, I was coming back from a jazz interview in Chinatown, listening to a mix of classic Stevie Wonder tunes from the 70s. I was on a subway platform walking from one train to the next with “Please Don’t Go” in my ears. It got to that part where Stevie goes into the chorus for the final time. The backing vocals kick in holding out long “aaahs” and the song modulates up a step. The feeling of happiness — of pure joy — was so intense that I could feel it in my stomach and I got that feeling around the eyes that you get when you’re almost-but-not-quite crying. I was in love with everyone and imagined they were all in love with me. I’m sure I had a huge smile on my face and I was dancing just a little while trying not to look like a nut. Probably trying and failing.

That feeling — an almost unbearable joy — happens most often for me with music, but it happens at other times, too. These days I’m focused on it because, to the external observer, my life offers few reasons to be joyous. I’m unemployed. I’m sleeping on my parents’ couch. My wife and I separating. Amicably, but it’s still a huge change after 15 years of marriage. My kids live in another state and it’s not clear when we’ll all live near one another again.

Those circumstances present two problems. One issue is that they’re not conditions that lend themselves to feelings of happiness. By most objective measures of success, my life is a bit of a shambles, in the same way the Titanic was “a bit of a disaster.” In fact, a few months ago my mom likened being my mother to being on a cruise ship during a huge storm. (OK, she actually said “during a tsunami,” but that’s a very charged word right now, particularly given my family ties to Japan.) Finding moments of happiness, or a path toward sustained happiness, is quite a challenge these days. Or at least it ought to be.

However — and this is the other issue — I’m actually happy a lot of the time. I love being in New York. I love talking with all the musicians I interview. I’m thrilled to be closer to many of my friends (although saddened to be farther from a few of them). I’m doing interesting things every day, in addition to writing a million cover letters and living off the state/parents dole. I’m excited about the personal transformation I’m going through and the possibilities it presents for love and fulfillment and growth. And I often wonder whether it’s OK to be feeling this way at all.

I don’t know if it’s because of youthful religious conditioning, or the effects of chronic and lifelong depression, or the way many of us in this country are conditioned to think, or some combination of all three, but I have a hard time accepting happiness. Actually being happy. When I’m walking down the subway platform and feeling so much joy that I want to start hugging strangers, there’s always that little voice in the back of my head warning me again these feelings of happiness. How can I be happy when I don’t have a job? When I’m not providing any material assistance to my kids, with whom I’m not even living?

There’s no easy answer. But I guess what I’ve come up with is that I’d rather find and hold onto these moments of joy than give in to the moments of despair. I’d rather be optimistic about the future. I’d rather work on becoming a happy, healthy, fulfilled and loving person — the kind of person I want my kids to have for a dad. Maybe I’m letting myself off the hook and maybe some of you reading this think I’ve got no right to be happy. But I’ve been keeping myself on a hook for years and years, and I’m ready to try something different.

So today I danced on a subway platform to Stevie Wonder. And tomorrow I hope to do the same thing.

Published in Random Musings


  1. Cheryl Cheryl

    It is so hard, this life…

  2. I love this post. My life isn’t a mess and I’m not sure how I’d hold up under the kind of stress you’re under, but I can totally relate to the intense feelings of joy, especially related to music.

    I tend to go in waves, sometimes not really listening to much music at all, other times wondering how I would ever live without it. In general, I have an overall feeling of bursting with gratitude for an endless list of things lately–perhaps heightened by how much disaster is happening in the world and how fragile life ultimately is.

    I hope your circumstances improve–I have a feeling with your outlook, your outer life will match your inner one sooner than later.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks so much. I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. Here’s to optimism!

  3. David P David P

    Very nice essay, Jason. You’re a bright, talented and driven guy, best I can tell. Things will get easier, even if Stevie Wonder isn’t on your iPod 24-7. Hang in there.

  4. As a fellow often-happy bum, I think I know where you’re coming from. Great post.

  5. Kim S. Kim S.

    This post just lifted my already joyous spirits to a new level of hope despite some obstacles in my own life. Never feel guilty about embracing happiness. Granted, you can’t fully appreciate happiness unless you’ve embraced some sadness (in other words, you can’t know one without the other). But I think it’s the BALANCE of both sensations that make the ride all the more interesting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jason. I am simultaneously humbled and elevated by your joy! 🙂

  6. Taneen Taneen

    I’ve been known to dance around the room after reading a particularly impactful passage…and let’s be clear there is no song playing! Spontaneous exuberance is natural in children and as adults we have been conditioned to refine or restrain our extreme emotions. Dance my friend!

  7. Fay Fay

    beautiful and inspiring post, Jason!! I think its perfectly OK and normal to feel pure happiness w/o it being attached to a job or anything else. Just the pure joy of being alive is cause for celebration. Sorry for all you’re going through yet it sounds like you have such a positive outlook on it and on where you’re going. Thank you!!

  8. @Taneen: I love it!

    @Fay: Thanks very much. I agree about the joy of being alive.

  9. This is beautiful, Jason. And I agree with Kim – we should never feel guilty about embracing happiness. Just because your life doesn’t look the same as it used to, or look the same as other’s lives, doesn’t mean it can’t be a thoroughly joyous experience.

    I think it takes great courage and wisdom to find happiness in times of strife. Obviously, you’ve made a conscious decision to be happy despite some unhappy circumstances. That’s not an easy thing to do, and I, for one, applaud and am uplifted by your choice.

    Keep on the sunny side, brother!

  10. obeedÃÂșid~ obeedÃÂșid~

    “Neither Christ nor Buddha nor Socrates wrote a book, for to do so is to exchange life for a logical process.”
    -William Butler Yeats Dance White-bread! Like Nobody is watching!
    (This is an old Irish proverb; no really, especially the “white-bread” part!) You’ll be a lot healthier for it in the long run!

  11. Jason, the ability to feel and express such joy is a gift, and one of the reasons I and so many people are drawn to you.

    In my own experience, joy amidst turmoil is the sweetest.

  12. @Jason, Obee & Julie: Thanks very much. People like you are one of the reasons it’s easier to find joy in the world.

  13. K K

    You are amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!! <3

  14. As you know, my friend, I’ve been called many things in my lifetime but rarely have I been called an optimist. One of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that reads, “If you’re not enraged, you’re not paying attention.” As you very well know from firsthand experience, one of my favorite expressions is “We’re all doomed.”
    That said, I, too, have experienced moments of joy like the one you so eloquently described above. Those are the moments that serve to remind us that despite all the misery, pain, depression, and sadness, life is indeed worth living. The older I get, the more I think that the only true measure of our importance here is if we are able to spread a little of that joy or happiness to others. If that is the yardstick of success, than you have already achieved a great deal!
    And, of course, If your REALLY want to experience some joy – next time “crank Frank” in that iPod of yours and watch out!!

  15. Couldn’t help myself – had to link to this post on FB. We all DO have the right to choose happiness – thanks for the reminder, Jason!

  16. @Otto: Thanks so much, man. You’re the one of the people who keeps my world joyful.

    @Marily: Thank you!

  17. […] I’m back in Brooklyn. As you may have read in earlier posts (1) (2), my life has changed a lot in recent years. As have I, thanks to a combination of maturity and […]

  18. I’ve bookmarked this post and come back to it when I need to be reminded of all the joy and love I have in my life. And to remind myself not to be so tragic. And that it’s ok to be happy, even when not so good things are happening. You are a beautiful spirit, Jason. Xoxo

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