Liking things is good, actually

In a time with so much stress and pain, why do we feel the need to police what brings us joy? We do it to ourselves and we do it to others. Why can’t we just let ourselves enjoy things?

I have recently gotten back into the book series Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland. The series has grown by more than 10 books from when I had last read it in elementary and middle school. As I’ve gotten reacquainted with this series, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the familiar writing style and fantasy world. It may be intended for a younger audience, but I have still found some of the characters relatable and the plot intriguing. However, when I started bringing my books to school to read during my free time, the enthusiasm I had for this familiar series was not shared by some of my classmates. As the Wings of Fire series was fairly popular when we were younger, lots of people had opinions. A few remembered the books fondly, commenting on the nostalgia of various popular series from when we were younger. However, some saw my choice of literature as childish, and others questioned my enjoyment. One classmate saw which book I was reading and felt the need to inform me that it was, in fact, the worst one in the series and that one of the characters that I was fond of was, in fact, quite unlikable.

That’s what got me thinking about how we enjoy things. It seems like it should be simple: why not do something that brings you joy? However, our enjoyment of activities and media is a lot more complicated. Our pleasure is often subject not only to us, but to the judgments of those around us, and to cultural standards regarding how we spend our time.

Outside judgment can make it difficult to enjoy things. Whether it’s a comment about your childish choice in books, how the producer of a movie you love is problematic, or how your skills in your hobby aren’t up to some stranger’s standards, it can damage your ability to enjoy what you’re doing. If your joy is met with enough negativity, it can begin to change how you interact with the world. I have often found it easier to commiserate with people than to share my excitement for something. It can be easy to internalize the negativity of your environment and begin to criticize your own enjoyment.

I have at times found it uncomfortable to share my interests out of fear that it will not be met well, that it will be judged, or that sharing would annoy the people around me. However, it is not only the sharing of joy that can be difficult but the act of enjoyment itself. I think for many people it can be hard to put energy into something that seems unproductive. In our culture, it can feel like if you aren’t being productive with your time, you’re doing something wrong. This can lead to the impulse to monetize your hobbies, which often makes them less enjoyable. It can also leave you feeling the need to advance your abilities. It can lead you to spend less time doing things that bring you joy, because doing something purely for enjoyment, not to learn a marketable skill, or build your resume, just feels wrong.

That same impulse to be productive can also make you feel uncomfortable doing something you’re bad at. It can make it hard to learn new skills and find new hobbies because you always have to start at the beginning. It can even be difficult to relax because the choice to relax (or to do anything) is inherently also choosing not to do something else.

How do we overcome this? How do we learn to find joy? One of the best ways is to stop constantly considering what you should be doing instead, or what doing your hobby is supposed to look like. It can be a lot of fun to do something you’re bad at. If you have free time, spend it doing what brings you joy. Watch that old TV show that brings you comfort. Play guitar badly if it makes you happy. Do something childish if you think it’s fun. Lift the light weights, make a lumpy mug on the pottery wheel, listen to that cringey basic artist whose music you like. Stop judging yourself for seeking joy, and stop feeling the need to stop others from finding it.

In a time with so much pain, why would finding something that brings you joy ever be a bad thing?