Joy is…A Spectrum

Rainbow on Grass Field


Like so many things in life, and in particular the emotions we feel as humans, for me joy is a spectrum. In medicine it can be so easy to fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking; a patient is either sick or well, their blood results are normal or abnormal, they fit a diagnosis or they do not. The way we are taught, as medical students, to categorize illness into specialities according to pathology, encourages us to ‘sort’ people. But once we actually start practising as doctors, our patients and our everyday experiences soon teach us that life is not as straightforward as this.

Being a doctor is as much an art as it is a science. Patients don’t present with textbook symptoms or easily diagnosable problems. They are often complex and their symptomatology overlaps between bodily systems and is enmeshed with many other aspects of their lives. We soon learn to view the typical presentation that was taught to us in a dark lecture theatre not as a blueprint to stick to rigidly but more as a helpful reference guide which may or may not contain clues as to what is going on for the person in front of us.

In the same way, I like to think of our emotions as being a continuum and joy is no exception to this. Yes, it is often thought of as a positive emotion. Although I have to confess a dislike for labelling emotions as positive and negative. We all experience a multitude of feelings throughout a day or even a week and these can shift subtly from one moment to the next. In demonising certain emotions into a negative category, we over simplify the great richness that being a human brings.  So, for me, at one end of my own personal spectrum, joy can be happy, elated, ecstatic, that intensely overwhelming feeling of pure, unbounded elation, a feeling so powerful that it feels like it might burst out of me. In my life, these moments often come at times when I feel in awe of the magnitude of the world we live in and the beauty and possibility which it contains; standing on top of a huge skyscraper in New York, marvelling at all that human beings are capable of, or staring up at the stars and realising just how small my place in the universe is. But joy is also more subtle. It hides in the gentle warmth of a stranger’s smile on a rainy day or in the simple pleasure of catching up with a well- loved friend over a hot cup of tea. In the heart-thumping dance around the kitchen with my children, or in the genuine thanks expressed by a grateful patient at the end of a long stressful day. I love to learn and grow, so for me joy can also be found in the quiet peace of settling down with a good book or in the satisfaction of having grasped a new concept.

And as with any spectrum, there will always be a part of that continuum, that lacks joy, or seems to have very little of it. Those moments where the joy seems to have been sucked out. Where we struggle even to find a neutrality, let alone to locate ourselves on the more intense end of the joy spectrum. Where the darkness feels like it will never leave and hope feels lost to us. Those are hard moments indeed. And yet...what if we can sit with that darkness and think of it in a different way. As Brene Brown, self-defined researcher-storyteller, tells us ‘’The dark does not destroy the light, it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.’’ As with any quote, I will leave you to take from this your own interpretation. But perhaps, you might allow me to share with you, what this quote says to me. It tells me, that only with the background of those dark moments present, will we be able to recognise the joy in our lives. And if we can embrace this polarity, then there is value to be taken from even the most unhappy moments in our lives. 

Where are you on the joy spectrum right now? Is it possible for you to take a moment to check in with yourself and notice what you are feeling, right here, in this present moment? Maybe for you joy is not a spectrum but instead an intense rollercoaster which jolts up and down from extreme happiness straight into the depths of sadness. Or perhaps, you spend most of your life happily traversing the middle zone, content and calm. For me, the most important part of this concept is my ability to use my own self-awareness to tap into exactly where I am at any given time and more challengingly to learn to sit in the dark, waiting patiently for the light to filter back in……as with all of life, this is a work in progress.


By Nicky Kiernan

Dr Nicky Kiernan is an NHS GP, trainee humanistic counsellor, Joyful Doctor Coach and writer. She has a passion for story-telling in all it's forms and loves discovering what makes people ‘tick’.


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