It’s easy to find joy in things, like a new pair of shoes, a delicious ice-cream cone, or a beautiful song.
It’s less obvious to find joy in things that aren’t there. Like the lack of an argument, the absence of terrible news, or the vanishing of a headache. But you already know the happiness of absent things. You’ve probably felt it when recovering from an illness or injury.
I came down with a high fever two weeks ago, and last week I couldn’t move at all without suffering a headache. I was delighted when my strength returned and I finally woke up without pain.
But the pleasure in absent things is most keenly felt at the point of release, and then easily forgotten. How can you remember the delight from living in good health when days, weeks, or months later you take it for granted?
Chade-Meng Tan writes about “the joy of not being in pain” in his book, Joy on Demand. Like me, he realized the happiness of absent things after recovering from pain. In his case, it was a painful tooth surgery.
I spent my life thinking of freedom as the freedom to do stuff, but that freedom turns out to be trivial compared to the much greater freedom from affliction. I am free from most afflictions most minutes in the day, and I had not paid that freedom one iota of attention, nor rejoiced in it for one moment. Hence, if I can learn to abide in the joy of not being in pain, I will have plenty of joyful moments.Chade-Meng Tan, Joy on Demand
Tan reasons that it’s hard to find contentment in missing things because noticing absence doesn’t come naturally to us. Nothing doesn’t lead to an impression of anything after all.
How to Find Joy in Absent Things
Chade-Meng Tan suggests that the way to find joy in absent things is to become aware of their non-appearance. It’s a mental trick that anyone can train.
Check from time to time, like now, to see if you’re in any pain. If you’re not, be grateful for that. I find it easier to do this by remembering the pains I’ve suffered in the past, and giving thanks for their absence.
To go one step further, Tan encourages noticing the absence of mental and emotional pain too. Like the absence of hatred or sadness, or the lack of guilt for having done something bad. If nothing’s there, be thankful for it too.
It’s less obvious to find happiness in things that aren’t there. But it’s an effective way to find more pockets of gladness in everyday moments.