Joy is a deep feeling of contentment, satisfaction, and/or appreciation of the things that mean the most to us — which isn’t necessarily attainment (the promotion) or material things (the new toys). It’s also not something we ‘attain’ and then it’s just there forever after that moment in time. Joy exists in moments big and small, and it comes and goes.
“Do you think being a man affects the amount of joy you feel in your life?”
I asked my friend this question as I prepared dinner last night.
“Well, I think there are so many directions that we could go with this conversation,” he replied.
He was right. Thirty minutes later, we still had not run out of things to say. Throughout our conversation, two themes stuck out most prominently: struggles with relationships and feelings of “never enough”.
Deep, meaningful relationships are an important source of joy for many people, according to researcher Dr. Pamela King. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone!
When you ask any parent about their greatest source of joy, you’re likely to hear “my children”. Similarly, when you ask people about their greatest regrets, many will say they regret not spending enough time with loved ones.
Relationships are so central in our lives for one major reason: humans are wired for connection.
All relationships — whether with partners, friends, or family members — are defined by connection. Connection requires vulnerability (a willingness to share our true selves with others), empathy (the act of listening to understand the true self of another), and care (the concern we have for the welfare of another, and the actions that accompany it).
Unfortunately, boys and men are often raised being encouraged to cut out vulnerability. What was okay to do as a young child — to reach for a hug, to ask for comfort and reassurance, to state what you need or feel — becomes taboo as a teenager.
For many of us, this pattern of disconnection continues into adulthood.
We are repeatedly taught to fear vulnerability because if others knew how we felt, or what we cared about, they could use it against us. We are taught to put up a wall to protect ourselves, without also being taught that it’s a barrier to disconnect ourselves.
We are also told that we shouldn’t need others anyway: we should be strong and independent. A lone wolf.
As a result, we may lose touch with our own needs and emotions, losing the ability to recognize how we feel and our ability to explain it to others. We lose the capacity to be vulnerable, which creates the first barrier to connection.
The second barrier to connection is a lack of empathy. If we can’t identify or explain what we need and feel, how can we do this for others? How can we connect with what they need and feel?
The final barrier to connection is lack of care.
How can we care for anyone, including ourselves, if we do not understand the feelings and needs of ourselves or others? Can we meet needs that we cannot even name?
Maybe we do care about others, maybe we care about them so deeply it hurts. But if we project invulnerability — and never explain how much we care — can we really be surprised when it looks like indifference to others?
All of this sets the stage for difficulty in relationships with others. Whether it’s our families, partners, or friends, struggling to say how we feel and what we need or asking how others feel and what they need, are signs of a lack of some basic relationship-building tools.
Relationships are a source of joy that men and boys may be distanced from due to the messages they’ve received about how to “be a man”.
My friend shared that when he was looking to buy a home for himself, he shunned places that seemed too small because they felt inadequate — regardless of the fact that he lives alone and doesn’t need much space.
“Do you ever feel like the messages that men get about what kind of lifestyle they should have, how they should look, or how much money they should make lead to feeling like you’ll never be good enough?”
“Yes”, he replied.
Boys and men are often raised in a culture of competition, hearing things like ‘if you’re not first, you’re last’, and are surrounded by images of powerful men positioned as role models. Power in this sense means influence, money, and fame.
Boys can feel pressure to ‘one-up’ each other: to be the funniest class clown, to be the top scorer on the hockey team, or to be really popular among their peers. Sometimes, this leads to bullying others in order to feel more secure about their own position.
This may continue for men into adulthood. There’s pressure to rise to the top: to always have your sights set on the promotion, the pay increase, the most ‘fit’ body, the newest tech, the fancy car with the loud engine, the most attractive partner, and the ‘perfect’ home. There’s a feeling of urgency, the need to have the next best thing, to always strive to achieve or impress, and to do it all now.
What does this pressure of “never enough” feel like?
Emptiness. Longing. Inadequacy. Envy. Stress.
I wouldn’t call any of those feelings joy. Not even close.
This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t desire material things, or strive to improve ourselves. This is to say that if we are 1) always waiting for the next best thing, we’re unlikely to ever feel content and 2) if we are not thinking about what matters most to us, we may not be living in accordance with our own values (but simply what we think society expects of us).
In fact, chasing ideals that do not align with our deepest values often means abandoning joy.
The good news is it doesn’t need to be this way. Boys and men can chart paths back to joy, and we can help one another to do this. Here are some key ideas to get us started:
- Role model vulnerability
Practice explaining how you feel and express what you need.
- Practice empathy
Ask others how they feel and what they need. Listen to understand, not to judge or fix.
- Explore your values
What really matters to you? What are your values? What’s really important to you at the end of the day?
- Aim for integrity
How will you live your values every day and in all areas of your life?