Book Bite: Aggressively Happy
By Cheryl Arnold
Father Frans recently preached a sermon about happiness the same week a new book arrived in my mailbox—Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life by Joy Marie Clarkson, the Books and Culture editor of Plough magazine. I had read a book written by her sister Sarah on how God’s goodness breaks into our darkness, so I was interested in reading Joy’s book on a similar theme after learning it was a book of essays drawing on literature, poetry, theology, history, and the author’s own life stories. Still, it seemed like it might be the wrong time to read a book about happiness, with Lent being a more solemn season and with the horrors of war filling our newsfeeds and TV screens. It turns out that it was exactly the right time to read this book. She writes, “This is a book about looking life square in the face and learning to, as Wendell Berry puts it “rejoice though you have considered all the facts.” It is not about being happy all the time. There is such a thing as toxic positivity, a compulsive need to look on the bright side that lends itself to a perpetual denial of the real, deep difficulties of life. A happiness that ignores pain, injustice, and brokenness is not worth having. But a happiness which can stand tall, look life in the eye, and smile anyway? That is well worth the fight. And a fight it must be. Patching together a joyful life takes far more effort than submitting to the soporific lull of cynicism.”
Clarkson says the phrase “aggressively happy” comes from an irate response to an innocuous
tweet she once made about tea or lipstick. That person responded, “This is disgusting. You are so aggressively happy.” She reflected on the tweet and decided to make “aggressively happy” her mantra, giving three reasons for cultivating happiness. First, if we accept that life is full of difficulties, we can either resign ourselves to cynicism and despair or seek delight and hope in spite of those difficulties. Second, we affect the people around us, and cultivating joy will nourish others. Third, happiness tells the truth about the world—that darkness and evil will not have the final say, and there is reason to hope.
Her chapters cover befriending sadness, floundering well, enjoying things unironically, believing in God when facing doubts, and accepting love, among other topics. At the end of each chapter, she includes three suggestions—something to read, something to see (art or a movie), and something to listen to—as well as some points to ponder.
I found this to be a lovely and timely book on how to live a life that turns darkness into light. Toward the end of the book, she writes, “Our response to a world falling apart is to act in the image of the God who made us. We are called to remake what evil has unmade, to reconcile God’s world back to God, even as Christ has reconciled us. It sounds like a large task, but Christ has already accomplished it. Our job is only to join the dance, to declare with our souls and lives that death is not the truest thing at the heart of the universe, but life, beauty, joy. The smallest act can be a declaration of God’s creative power over the uncreative powers of death and evil.”