The Happiness Project

Shield Your Joyous Ones

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too ! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

For my children’s-literature reading group , I just reread The Diary of Anne Frank . Goodness. I was 14 the last time I read it, and it’s very different reading it as an adult. If you haven’t read it recently, or ever, you really should.

The Diary of Anne Frank got me thinking about many things, most of them too huge to fit into a blog post.

But I was also very struck by one particular point, one small happiness-related aspect of their experience: how the eight people in hiding were so affected by each other’s moods. This isn’t surprising, but the diary powerfully captures this emotional contagion phenomenon.

Despite some difficulties, Anne mostly comes across as a cheery, energetic person with a ready sense of humor, and it seems that the others drew on that cheerful energy, even while they often criticized and nagged her. I was reminded of a resolution I’ve written about before, the resolution to ” Shield my joyous ones .”

A prayer attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo includes the line, Shield your joyous ones :
Tend your sick ones, O Lord Jesus Christ;
rest your weary ones; bless your dying ones;
soothe your suffering ones; pity your afflicted ones;
shield your joyous ones.
And all for your love’s sake.

At first, it struck me as odd that among prayers for the “dying” and “suffering” is a prayer for the “joyous.” Why worry about the joyous ones?

Once I started to reflect about my “joyous ones,” I began to appreciate the people I know who are joyous. As part of my happiness project, I try to keep resolutions like Give positive reviews , Leave things unsaid , Let it go , and Sing in the morning —and trying to keep those resolutions has made me understand much better how much effort it takes to be consistently good-tempered and positive.

For example, I remember that one day when we were visiting Kansas City, my father came home from work, and my mother told him, “We’re having pizza for dinner.” As she knew he would, my father answered, “Wonderful! Wonderful! Do you want me to go pick it up?”

We all knew that my father would have answered that way even if he didn’t want pizza for dinner, and even if the last thing he felt like doing was heading back out the door—and that kind of consistent enthusiasm contributes a lot to everyone’s happiness.

And if that kind of behavior makes a difference under the conditions of ordinary life, and is challenging to maintain in ordinary life, it’s hard to imagine both how difficult it would be, and how elevating it would be, to behave that way in the extreme fear and privation of the Secret Annex.

We nonjoyous types suck energy and cheer from the joyous ones. We rely on them to buoy us with their good spirit and to cushion our agitation and anxiety.

At the same time, because of a dark element in human nature, we’re sometimes provoked to try to shake the joyous ones out of their fog of illusion. Instead of shielding their joy, we blast it. For example, it’s easy to make fun of joyous ones’ enthusiasms. Why is this? I have no idea. But that impulse is there.

In his outstanding biography, Samuel Johnson , W. Jackson Bate describes how upset the temperamental Samuel Johnson became when his joyous, enthusiastic supporter, Hester Thrale, turned her attention away from him.

It is a common mistake on the part of cooler, self-contained natures to assume that those who have a giving and ebullient character are what they are only because they cannot help it—that they are fed from a spring that will never stop rather than a reservoir that can be exhausted. Hence the feeling of stark disbelief or unpleasant shock on the part of others when the reservoir of effort and energy—for it turns out to be a reservoir—is almost gone … the principal reward for those who give lavishly rather than meagerly is the expectation that they remain true to form and continue to give.

We depend on the joyous ones, and we need to remember that their joy isn’t inexhaustible or unconquerable. Now I’m making a real effort to use my own good cheer to support and protect the enthusiasts I know.

Now, obviously, this isn’t the most important lesson from The Diary of Anne Frank . But it’s one lesson.

Do you know joyous ones—or are you one? Do you find that people often feed off that energy, yet also try to squash it?

* One of my most hilarious friends has started a blog, which is now one of my favorites: RealDelia , about “finding yourself in adulthood.”

* To join the discussion about happiness on Facebook, join the Facebook Page .