An Ethics of Joy

TEDx Doncaster 13.10.19 (images to be added).


“What would it feel like, to have more joy in your life?”

Several years ago, I started to practice an ethics of joy – and it changed my life. That sounds really fancy but my experience is a practical one and I’ll be sharing some ideas for you to take away. Together, practising joy, we can really change things here in Doncaster.

First, a little bit about me.

I was adopted when I was a baby and I was brought up in Mexborough, so you might be expecting some sort of tragic life story but in fact I’ve had a life full of love. At school I was the brightest of bright and it’s only when I went to Uni that I started to lose my way. Amongst all the middle-class kids I couldn’t find my place, I felt other and impostor syndrome kicked in. It took me decades to get my confidence back.

Here’s the thing. Having spent three years in the company of people I regarded as more privileged than me, I thought of myself as a victim. I was feisty and opinionated and yet I couldn’t see that the opinions I spouted weren’t my own. I could see injustice all around me, but because I didn’t feel powerful, it was always somebody else’s job to find a solution.

I patched together a public service career, I had my son and I started to think about what my values were. How often does someone ask us that? We are crowded by other people’s values: ‘British Values’ in education, religious moral frameworks, codes of conduct, political manifestos. It strikes me that by figuring out what our personal values are – our ethics – we equip ourselves with a compass for life.

I wanted my values to be more than words on a page. I wanted them to be a practice, something I actively did, rather than just talked about. And I realised that the word that kept coming up for me was joy. The sort of joy that happens when people interact.

I’m not talking here about happiness. Happiness is a commodity that’s sold to us. Nobody talks about doing happiness, unless you’re buying that dream holiday or the perfect brows. The happiness industry keeps us tied into spending – and if we can’t afford to buy what we see others delighting in, we feel like we’ve failed.

Doncaster is not the richest place on earth and that’s why we need joy around here, not more stuff. When I left the organisation I worked for I decided to see what would happen if I only took on work that brought people joy, because that seemed to be the best sort of help:

This is what I mean by an ethics of joy – a deliberate and affirmative practice. Not playing the glad game, but building relationships which play out in something good – a project, a collaboration, an exchange. This helps us be hopeful, which is the only weapon we have against the complexity and cynicism of modern life.

Joy gave me an ethics.

Good Help gave me a purpose.

Now I needed a toolkit.

Many years before I had been trained in a set of processes called the Thinking Environment: simple, disciplined rules to help people think for themselves and think better together. I’d raised my son in a Thinking Environment and I’d used it a lot in my teaching, so I figured it would help me practice joy.

One of the jobs I do now is run Slimming World groups in what used to be my school. Around 200 mainly women (and some brave men) come through that door every Monday, vulnerable and often ashamed. They are some of the 74% of Doncaster people who are overweight, something which is more likely to lead to isolation than to joy. Yes we get on the scales and we clap and give certificates, and we talk about recipes and getting more active. But we also teach each other how to feel hopeful and we do that by thinking together in a practice of joy.

Using the Thinking Environment, which does not allow us to interrupt one another, I ask everyone in the room, what is your non-scale victory this week? Where in your life have you felt hopeful? This is what they tell me.

I drove to Cleethorpes by myself.

I enrolled to be a midwife.

I asked him to leave.

What happens between us on a Monday is joy [PAUSE]: not something we have but something we do: a practice. And the more we practice, the better at it we get.

Last year, I was teaching a class that mirrored the town outside. White faces down one side of the room and brown faces down the other. No animosity, no connection. There was only one man in the room, a white guy, and he had 90% of the airtime. The Asian girls barely spoke. I practised my ethics of joy and we did round after Thinking Environment round. Slowly, the culture of the group shifted and joyful encounters started to happen. The guy relaxed – he just hated silence – and people began mixing in, having opinions, thinking. Their grades improved – massively. They spoke about one another differently. This is what one of them said:

That’s joy.

These students of last year are the teachers of tomorrow. I hope that some of them will come here, to Doncaster, where we have a school that is such a blessing because it knows how to practice joy. Do you know the school? Yes XP. Where parents didn’t want to send their kids at first and now there’s a second campus because their results – by any measure – are so outstanding. They are enabling kids to feel hopeful, identify their own purpose and confidently take action and that’s because they work together joyously – as a crew.

Every one of you here today can go out and practice joy by creating the conditions for others – and yourself – to be heard. It won’t happen overnight – people with power won’t want to give up their voice and people who don’t feel powerful will hide behind silence. But it will happen.

Here’s how. It’s all about the minor gestures.

  1. Checking in with your values and figuring out how you practise each one. This isn’t easy when they conflict – and they will do – with the values of your organisation, your church, your political affiliation, your family and friends. It’s a bit easier for me now in my nomadic career – when I feel my ethics getting crowded out, it’s time to move on. But it’s possible.
  2. Calling people by their name – accurately. Using their preferred pronoun. Asking if you are not sure. I’m shocked by how many teachers tell me, I’m no good at names. Get good at it! Nothing is more profoundly joyful than that.
  3. And give people space and silence to finish their thoughts. There are lots of ways to practice a Thinking Environment and you can look them up online. Go for a walk with someone and take it in turns to speak, not interrupting the silence until the speaker says, I’m done. Split ten minutes with a friend, five minutes to think without interruption each way. Once you’ve experienced that joy of being truly listened to, you won’t want to go back.

I am no paragon of joy. I get it wrong loads. I love a good moan. I’m certainly no relationship guru, I miss deadlines sometimes, and friendships when I overcommit. I’m a great parent, but perhaps not in the way that you might imagine. This was a little present from my son.

But I keep plodding on, joyfully, and all around me I see the ripples of change – real change, culture change. Joy is infectious. It’s a virtuous virus that passes between all of us. I hope today I’ve connected enough with you, for you to invite joy into your life, your work and your relationships too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s