Starting Point

Joy Is a Human Birthright

Perspectives and reflections on happiness — and why it’s fundamental to our being.

Illustration by Andrea Ucini.

In this unsettled moment, we’re returning to the shows we’re longing to hear again. Among them is this 2019 conversation with writer Ross Gay. The ephemeral nature of our being allows him to find delight in all sorts of places (especially his community garden). To be with Gay is to train your gaze to see the wonderful alongside the terrible; to attend to and meditate on what you love, even in the midst of difficult realities and as part of working for justice.

A mission scientist with NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, Natalie Batalha hunts for exoplanets — Earth-sized planets beyond our solar system that might harbor life. She speaks about unexpected connections between things like love and dark energy, science and gratitude, and how “exploring the heavens” brings the beauty of the cosmos and the exuberance of scientific discovery closer to us all.

Writer and illustrator Maira Kalman is well known for her books for children and adults, her love of dogs, and her New Yorker covers. Her words and pictures bring life’s intrinsic quirkiness and whimsy into relief right alongside life’s intrinsic seriousness. As a storyteller, she is contemplative and inspired by the stuff of daily life — from fluffy white meringues to well-worn chairs. “There’s never a lack of things to look at,” she says. “And there’s never a lack of time not to talk.”

“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all,” Michael McCarthy writes. He is a naturalist and journalist with a galvanizing call — that we stop relying on the immobilizing language of statistics and take up our joy in nature as our defense of it. And he reminds us that the natural world is where we first found our metaphors and similes and it is the resting place for our psyches.

The ornithologist Drew Lanham is lyrical in the languages of science, humans, and birds. He’s a professor of wildlife ecology, a self-described “hunter-conservationist,” and author of the celebrated book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. His way of seeing and hearing and noticing the present and the history that birds traverse —through our backyards and beyond —is a revelatory way to be present to the world and to life in our time.

This conversation is part of the 2021 Great Northern festival in On Being‘s hometown of the Twin Cities.

We’re in a season of renewal in the natural world and in spiritual traditions; both Easter and Passover this year are utterly transformed. It’s drawing us back to the wisdom of Br. David Steindl-Rast, who makes useful distinctions around experiences that are life-giving and resilience-making yet can feel absurd to speak of in a moment like this. A Benedictine monk for over 60 years, Steindl-Rast was formed by 20th-century catastrophes. He calls joy “the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” And his gratefulness is not an easy gratitude or thanksgiving — but a full-blooded, reality-based practice and choice.

A French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk and a central figure in the Dalai Lama’s dialogue with scientists, Matthieu Ricard was dubbed “The Happiest Man in the World” after his brain was imaged. But he resists this label. In his writing and in his life, he explores happiness not as pleasurable feeling but as a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life and that encompasses many emotional states, including sadness. We take in Matthieu Ricard’s practical teachings for cultivating inner strength, joy, and direction.

“A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” Mary Karr has a captivating ability to give voice to what is funny in life’s most heartbreaking moments. She is beloved for her salty memoirs in which she traces her harrowing childhood in southeast Texas — with a mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher’s knife and her own adult struggles with alcoholism and breakdown. Mary Karr embodies this wryness and wildness in her lesser-known spiritual practice as a devout Catholic — an unexpected move she made in mid-life.

The great cellist Yo-Yo Ma is a citizen artist and a forensic musicologist, decoding the work of musical creators across time and space. In his art, Yo-Yo Ma resists fixed boundaries, and would like to rename classical music just “music” — born in improvisation, and traversing territory as vast and fluid as the world we inhabit. In this generous and intimate conversation, he shares his philosophy of curiosity about life, and of performance as hospitality.