Brené Brown is a researcher who writes about vulnerability, empathy, courage, shame, and other uplifting topics related to living a whole-hearted existence. I’ve always enjoyed her work and how she pairs an analytical approach with a wry sense of humor.
One thing she wrote about that left me gobsmacked was an experience she calls “foreboding joy.”
First, please forgive me if I sound like a Vulcan as I try to explain this. I wrote this post long-hand while I was flying across the country, and my pen can’t keep up with my brain. Also, I was stuffing Biscoff cookies into my face.
Anyway, here is how foreboding joy works:
You are feeling good about life. Things are going well, your plans are coming together, and you are hopeful about the future. You experience joy.
And then, out of nowhere, you find yourself imagining what could go wrong. What disaster could befall you that would bring everything to a screeching halt. If you fixate on it long enough your heart starts to race because your imagination can be a terrifying place—financial trouble, illness, death.
Just like that, your joy feels tainted.
I used to experience this often while commuting. I would let my mind wander and reflect on how I was in a good place in my life, how well things were going, and indulging myself with dreams of the future. Is this happiness? I think so… yes, yes it is! I’M HAPPY! FINALLY!
Then, BAM! It would hit me like a punch in the gut with all the things that could go wrong. It was a visceral reaction to feeling happy. Like, really, I could feel it in my belly. It was as if I couldn’t allow myself to be happy. It was just so scary to think of losing what I had worked so hard to achieve. It wasn’t conscious—it just happened.
Naturally, I assumed something was wrong with me, because HELLO, I am sometimes a real mess. It was frustrating to feel like I was winning at life only to have that darkness show up unannounced. So when I heard what Brené Brown had to say about foreboding joy, it was a game-changer. Seriously?! This happens to other people too? It isn’t just me?
Okay, great, it’s a very primitive, lizard brain thing to anticipate threats, but I’m not a proto-human that needs to watch out for saber toothed weasels or whatever else could be lurking on the savanna. What could I actually do about it? It feels pretty shitty when it happens, and generally gets in the way of a good time. For those of us who experience depression, it can send you into a tailspin.
Brené had an answer for that too. An antidote for foreboding joy, as it turns out, is gratitude. Whatever it is that is freaking you out, whatever it is that you are afraid of losing, expressing your gratitude can short-circuit the part of your brain that finds it necessary to rehearse and prepare for disaster. It turns out that your grandmother was right when she said, “count your lucky stars.”
My own gratitude adjustment
The name of this blog, FI Before I Die, is a bit of a joke with myself about the foreboding joy I experience around financial independence. When I look at where I am in my life, and what I could accomplish toward my goal, I inevitably imagine myself being on the road and making progress only to get sidetracked by some emergency or another. Or, I imagine myself getting there only to find myself unable to actually enjoy it, through disability or death. Alone in a fancy-schmancy assisted living facility with “Hotel California” playing on the muzak system.
I’ve become acutely aware recently, through the loss of loved ones, how mortal we are and how fragile life is. So when I experience foreboding joy that is just where my mind goes.
So, here is MY “gratitude adjustment.”
I am thankful for my job, which has given me rich experience, good friends, high pay, benefits, and flexibility. It has given me more than enough for my family to enjoy a comfortable life.
I am thankful for my son, who is challenged by autism and is one of the coolest people I know. He enriches my life more than he will ever appreciate.
I am thankful for his dad, my ex, who is an amazing father and who is committed to co-parenting with me for Junior’s benefit.
I am thankful for my friends, who love me for who I am, quirks and eccentricities included.
I could go on and on.
It used to seem so silly to me when my grandmother would say “count your blessings,” because I chafed against the notion that I was blessed at all. But if an atheist could be “blessed,” that would be me. I am truly fortunate and I know it.
And for the record, I am committed to reaching Financial Independence long before I die. If I don’t make it for some unforeseeable reason, at least Junior will have a good inheritance, and a legacy of love and gratitude. I am determined to LIVE my life, and to cultivate joy wherever and whenever possible.
It just so happens that being a sarcastic nitwit is one of the things I most enjoy.
It’s the little things. 😉