In 1983, the happiest place on earth was my bedroom. My walls were plastered with magazine pictures and posters of John Travolta. I had shirtless images of the dancer Tony Manero from the movie Staying Alive. Vinni Barbarino was the funniest and cutest high school student I could imagine. My favorite and most abundant posters were of Danny Zuko in a leather jacket from Grease. I could not get enough of that black t-shirt, white socks, greased up hair, dancing with Olivia Newton John in the "shake shack." Picture a tiny 6th grader with feathered hair, braces on her teeth, dancing to the Grease soundtrack on the record player. No matter what 6th grade tragedy had played out, I knew that my sanctuary of music and sweaty, shirtless pictures were waiting at the end of the day.
I am confident that John Travolta had no idea how significant he was. His shiny, smiling pictures beaming down at me while I sang to him in my Jordache jeans and E.T. shoes from Buster Brown. I know he was not actually in the room. He was not transmitting himself from his Hollywood mansion into my sanctuary. He was not an active participant in my daily ritual but I thought John Travolta made me happy. For one hour a day, far away from the pressures of school and younger siblings, this moment was mine. I could let go of stress and I could be me. Surrounded by his glossy images, I felt "super joy" as I played, danced, and sang.
Looking back on these moments, I realize that the joy did not come from John Travolta. It came from me. In the safety of my room, I took off society's expectations, and joy freely flowed out.
I often hear people claim that their husbands, their partners, and their children bring them happiness. I challenge this, "Do these people 'give' you joy? Are you a vacuum sucking joy from others?" Perhaps this myth that joy comes from external sources can be traced back to childhood. Imagine a time when you were 1½ years old and you did something smart. You felt happiness, because you figured out how to turn on something or say something funny. Mom and Dad provided positive reinforcement. They smiled, called you a good girl, hugged you, or took your picture. It’s no wonder that we begin to think that joy comes from external sources.
The connection is made, “Oh, if I do this, they like me… they love me.” Once the child makes that link they can spend the rest of her life seeking approval from others. Even as adults, we look for opportunities to be seen and praised. We crave acceptance and the joy it brings. We seek friends, partners, and families to invite us into their lives, say comforting things, and become our cheerleaders. We even get mad when the people we rely on for positive reinforcement don’t support us- and elicit joy- the way we want them to.
When we fall in love, we might think, “Oh, this person will celebrate and appreciate me forever.” We marry a potential joy machine and have 10,000 tons of expectations about how this other person will be our biggest fan and praise everything we do. Eventually, we may even fall out of love with this person when they stop praising us.
If we go back to that child who is 1½, we can find the joy that came out of us without any expectations from others. We can all remember that joy. Be still, close your eyes, and remember a time when you experienced it. Remember how it felt in your body, jumping into a lake, laying in the sun, watching a baby, petting a dog. When you remember moments like these, take a second to turn your focus inward. Instead of looking out to another person or the thing that you believe brought happiness and love, notice the sensations happening inside your body. Live in that experience for a few moments. Feel joy, be joy, breathe in joy. Write down a few words to express that experience. Notice what it takes to feel like that again.
In our relationships, how often do we walk around with armor, protecting and defending our joy? Do we close up around others? Who is safe enough so that we can be our true selves, allowing us to be silly? What gets in our way from experiencing ourselves more fully? Where do we connect with our joy? Is it nature? With our pets? Do we let it out in the car, singing along to our favorite song on the radio? Where is our 1983 bedroom?
Looking back, I realize that my happiness did not come from John Travolta's posters. After all, I was the one who put those posters up on the wall. I was the joy machine in my bedroom. My room was safe enough to remove my protective armor. John Travolta did not give me anything. I felt the safety to let go.
Ultimately, we decide when and around who we give joy. The other people we attribute our happiness to simply allow us to let out our joy. Who would you be without the thought that your happiness depends on someone else?
In the spirit of full disclosure, in 1983 there was also a poster of "Ponch" aka Erik Estrada from CHiPs on my wall!