Where does joy come from?

by Rebecca Bricker on April 4, 2013

A few days ago, the father of an Italian friend asked me, “You are so filled with joy. How did you learn to be this way? Is it something your mother taught you?”

“No,” I said. (No slight to my mother, but she didn’t teach me about joy.) I hesitated before I answered him. He seemed to want to know the truth.

“I’ve had a lot of sadness in my life,” I told him. He looked surprised. “My sister died a few years ago. My mother has Alzheimer’s. My father has had several strokes that have changed him. I’ve had to deal with the aftermath of divorce.”

“I’m so sorry,” the man said. “Then where does the joy come from?”

“Every morning, when I put my feet on the floor, I try to step into the light.”

He nodded. I think he understood.

He had a lot of questions for me, in our short visit together. “Do you ever feel homesick?”

“Yes,” I said. “I miss my son, my friends.” I thought about how, even in the wonderful life I’m enjoying here in Italy, loneliness sometimes nips at my heels. “But often, my loneliness is actually nostalgia – for a time of my life that I can never have again, even if I go back home.”

I could feel a lump swelling in my throat as I said this. I thought of the lovely home I once had in Pasadena, where my son was born. For a long time after I sold it (at the onset of the mortgage crisis in 2008), I couldn’t drive down that street. And then one day, I got up my nerve. But I discovered – sitting in my car at the curb, looking at the place that had been home for 22 years – that going home again was far more painful than I had imagined.

There are times when I feel engulfed with a sense of loss. The family life I once had is gone. My sister is dead (today is her birthday). My mother doesn’t know me. My father is a different man. The marriage I had hoped would last a lifetime, didn’t.

So where does the joy come from?

I recently posted a link on Facebook to an interesting article called 22 Things Happy People Do Differently. Those 22 things got me thinking. Here’s a recap of the list:

  1. Don’t hold grudges – they’re poison.
  2. Treat others with kindness – acts of kindness produce serotonin (a hormone that eases tension and lifts your spirits) and enable you to build stronger relationships.
  3. See problems as challenges – a problem is an obstacle; a challenge is like a puzzle waiting to be solved. Think of challenges as an opportunity or a dare.
  4. Express gratitude for what you already have – “The happiest people don’t have the best of everything; they just make the best of everything they have.” Count your blessings and don’t yearn for what you don’t have.
  5. Dream big – you’ll have a focused, positive frame of mind and will be more likely to accomplish your goals.
  6. Don’t sweat the small stuff – trivial annoyances won’t matter a year from now (or even a week from now).
  7. Speak well of others – gossiping can make you feel guilty and resentful. Try to be positive and non-judgmental.
  8. Never make excuses – don’t blame others for your failures. Own up to your mistakes and shortcomings and proactively try to make changes for the better.
  9. Get absorbed into the present – stop and smell the gardenias (they’re blooming now, btw).
  10. Wake up at the same time every morning – it stabilizes your circadian rhythm, increases productivity and calms you.
  11. Avoid social comparison – focus on your own progress and praise others on theirs.
  12. Choose friends wisely – misery loves company. Surround yourself with positive energy.
  13. Never seek approval from others – follow your heart and don’t let the naysayers discourage you.
  14. Take time to listen – talk less; listen more. You’ll learn a lot. Listening also quiets the mind.
  15. Nurture social relationships – strong, healthy relationships are important. Make time for the people you care about.
  16. Meditate – it quiets and calms you.
  17. Eat well – everything you eat directly affects your body’s ability to produce hormones, which will dictate your moods, energy and focus.
  18. Exercise – boosts self-esteem and your sense of accomplishment.
  19. Live minimally – eliminate clutter. It weighs you down and makes you feel overwhelmed.
  20. Tell the truth – lying makes you unlikeable and untrustworthy. Don’t apologize for being truthful.
  21. Establish personal control – don’t let others tell you how to live your life. Choose your own destiny.
  22. Accept what cannot be changed – accept the fact that life is not fair. Focus on what you can control and change it for the better.

I’ve taped this list to my bathroom mirror. I read it when I’m brushing my teeth. Sometimes I choose one thing that I need to work on as my task for the day.

I’ve added a few things to the list: don’t stay up too late, read good books, see inspiring movies, do something with your hands (knit, quilt, paint, sculpt, play the piano), put your records on and dance, have a little bar of dark chocolate in the cupboard and/or a carton of gelato in the freezer, make margaritas for friends, travel and experience other cultures, grow a garden (even on a tiny balcony), tell the people you love that you love them (COLIN, I LOVE YOU!) – and if the family you’ve known fades away, embrace a new family.

Where does joy come from? It comes from within. It’s a gift we give to ourselves. Each and every day.










Sarah McKee April 4, 2013 at 11:06 am

Becky, thanks so much! They’re all precious practices.

Re No. 13, I’d add, as to certain projects, be wise in those to whom you tell what you’re up to. It prevents a lot of naysaying. After you’ve quietly done the improbable, or the impossible! is time enough to let the world know.

Rebecca Bricker April 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I understand this, totally. I remember a naysayer trying to tip my boat just before I set off for Italy on my first trip, a few years ago. He was drawing on his own life experiences that had nothing to do with mine. I held on tight (that boat rocked hard at first), but eventually I proved him wrong. His opinion didn’t matter – and neither did proving him wrong. Yes, he greatly underestimated me. But I remember, months later, how happy he was when, on a skype call, he saw and felt my joy. 😉

Thom April 4, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Another hit to the heart (as well as the head). I would add – Understand that joy is contagious, be open to it. And, Understand that joy and happiness are not the same thing.
Thanks for the reminder. Prayers of blessings to you in the remembrance of your sister. It is good that she is still your companion.

Rebecca Bricker April 5, 2013 at 12:20 am

Thank you, T, for your blessings and kind thoughts – much appreciated! :)

Patrick Bones April 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm

Great reading once again Bricker! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and great insight. Appreciate you even though you are thousands of miles away! Love you B! PCB

Rebecca Bricker April 5, 2013 at 12:24 am

When I told my friend’s father about the friends I missed back home, I thought of you, Mary, Christopher and Marty. It’s so nice that we can stay in touch via all our gadgets and technology! Sending you much love the old-fashioned way – blowing a kiss out the window. 😉

muddygloves April 4, 2013 at 5:02 pm





Rebecca Bricker April 5, 2013 at 12:29 am

My dear Carol – thank you for all your love and support over these many, many years. You were at my side when the boat capsized on one horrible voyage. I will never forget your kindness to me – it made all the difference. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for folding me into the arms of your family. I love you, Carol. :)

Debbie Ferris April 4, 2013 at 7:32 pm

The father is correct. You are always filled with joy! Love the list. Beautiful blog. I love having positive friends like you!


Rebecca Bricker April 5, 2013 at 12:33 am

Thanks, Debbie – you’re such a special friend to me. You, too, have found great joy in life – and always can be counted on for fun & games! Frisbee golf, anyone? Or maybe you’d like to play this stick game from Sweden…;D

Peg Ross April 5, 2013 at 8:02 am

Thanks, Becky. Lovely thoughts–and I’m going to follow your lead and post them where I can see them every day! Miss you! Peg

Rebecca Bricker April 5, 2013 at 8:28 am

Is there something familiar to you about the photo of the person stepping into the light? You were with me, at Santa Maria Novella church (Easter Week 2010) – and a guard was telling everyone we couldn’t take photos. But I slipped my phone out of my bag and pretended I was texting, while actually, I was taking this photo. You were on to me, but the guard wasn’t, thank goodness – we might have been thrown out onto the street. (Don’t get me started about the church ‘police’ in Italy!) I just couldn’t resist this image of a foot in mid-air, above a patchwork of stained glass on the floor. You’re the BEST traveling companion – and we’ve had a long history as traveling buddies, ever since sitting across the aisle from each other in 5th grade. :)

jean April 8, 2013 at 3:52 am

I’m a little late, but do want to send you and big hug and kiss, in memory of your sister and then another big hug and kiss because you are you! Talk to you soon. Love, Jean

Rebecca Bricker April 14, 2013 at 5:14 am

Grazie mille, Jean! Your friendship means so much to me. :)

Pat April 13, 2013 at 3:55 am

Oh, Rebecca, this is a beautiful, inspirational post that reminds me once again to seize the day. I am so sorry for your losses. Your line, “But often, my loneliness is actually nostalgia – for a time of my life that I can never have again, even if I go back home,” really resonates with me. I think the sense of loss and touch of loneliness is part of the expat life, but it is also in discovering new horizons that we can learn to truly savor our past. I am not surprised by your Italian friend’s father comment for I can feel the joy you radiate in your writing.

Rebecca Bricker April 22, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thanks so much, Pat. Yes, it’s the new horizons I look to each day when I put my feet on the floor in that patch of light. As the years go by, you begin to see it all as life’s beautiful and amazing patchwork. As you say – it’s in “discovering new horizons that we can learn to truly savor our past.”

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