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Advent (3): Joy

Advent (3): Joy featured image

The theme of the third week of advent is joy, and what theme could be more suitable for the festive season? I think we would all agree that what is loveliest about Christmas is the fact that it unites young and old in a set of innocently joyful experiences that none of us ever grow out of: be that carol singing; gathering around tree to open presents; or simply dozing on the sofa, stuffed to the gills with food, while a family favourite movie plays on the TV. Behind all these experiences lies a simple and universal joy – which is at once animal and spiritual – huddling together at the darkest point the year in an ecstasy of hibernation, momentarily liberated from care, routine and even time itself.

Joy is one of the hardest of human feelings to pin down and one of the most paradoxical, in that consciously searching for it tends to make it more elusive. It is hard to define or describe, yet we all know it when we see it in others or experience it in ourselves. But joy is also infectious. Just as it is difficult to watch someone else yawning without yawning yourself, so it is pretty difficult to wander into a scene of joy without some of that same feeling rubbing off on you. This is a reminder of the beautiful fact that love, happiness and joy are not finite. That is, by sharing love, happiness or joy we are not spreading something out until it cannot spread any further, instead by sharing these things we simply generate more and more. As the Buddha taught, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

As ever when it comes to blogs and assemblies, I am called upon to pretend to be wiser than I actually am and to dispense some words that are enlightening, useful or uplifting. When I sat down to think about what I could say about joy that would be genuinely useful, what popped into my head was an interview I once read with Richard Branson in which the interviewer asked him what he do if he ever lost all his money. Branson smiled and said, “I’d open a market stall and start selling stuff.” What this showed is that, whilst he undoubtedly enjoys his considerable wealth, Richard Branson’s main source of joy is the activity of being an entrepreneur. It is a never ending process – rather than a fixed goal or end state – that is his real source of satisfaction and enjoyment.

This struck me as a perfect example of one of the main things that brings us joy, which is being immersed in work that you love. This, in turn, gave me the opportunity to recycle a favourite theme of mine[1] which is the concept of ‘flow.’

In 1990 the eminent Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a book that I would strongly recommend to any teacher and, indeed, to anyone interested in the concept of human happiness. Csikszentmihalyi’s basic thesis is that people are at their happiest when they are in a state of what he calls ‘flow’ – which is total immersion in an activity for its own sake. This state of flow is often described as being ‘in the zone’ and is particularly associated with sporting or artistic endeavour. However, the potential for flow is not confined to any particular type of activity. It can be achieved through sport, art, music, writing, performing, debating, building and almost any activity that demands a reasonable level of concentration. At its most complete, the state of flow is essentially a spiritual state, as it involves a complete separation from the normal experience of space, time and the self. It is precisely this transcendence of the normal conditions of consciousness that makes flow a gateway to profound happiness.

The attempt to achieve flow is at the heart of our entire Minerva philosophy at Amherst School. The ingredients for achieving flow in any activity are pretty simple. All you need is the following:

  • A very clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve and solid guidance on how to get there
  • A level of challenge just above your current level of ability
  • A willingness to persevere and to meet with a certain level of trial and error in your task
  • An ability to forget any extrinsic reasons why you may be performing the task (e.g. for a grade or exam result) and focus instead on the intrinsic experience of the task itself


In the context of secondary education, the first two ingredients have to be provided by the teacher and the third and fourth have to come from the pupil (but, of course, the school has to provide the environment that can nurture these responses in its pupils). Only if all four ingredients are present can you achieve flow.

I believe very strongly that all of us have a few activities that we are naturally predisposed to achieve ‘flow’ in. Likewise, I believe that one of the goals of any good school should be to help the individual student locate these activities if they can.

But the message of ‘flow’ is about much more than success. It is really a spiritual message that chimes with the teachings of most of the great religious leaders and thinkers in human history. True joy is never about destination, it is about how you journey.

The Gospel of Luke (Chapter 17) contains the following passage:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of heaven would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of heaven is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.”

Like any Bible passage, this is open to many different interpretations. My own understanding of it is that Jesus is saying that heaven is not a place that you can end up in, but rather a state of being that is invisible but eternally available. I am not suggesting that ‘flow’ is the same thing as achieving the kingdom of heaven, but I think that it is one of the few earthly experiences that, however dimly,  gives us a real understanding of what true joy, the joy of God, is actually like.

I wish joy for every student that passes through Loughborough Amherst School. This does not mean that I wish for them to be rich, or lucky, or famous, or immune from the sufferings and disappointments of life. All of these things are well beyond the power of any school to help nurture or guarantee. Thankfully, as it happens, none of them has anything to do with joy either.

What I do wish (and I believe every school should strive to help students find) is that every Amherst student leaves school equipped with the capacity to achieve ‘flow’ and, hopefully, with a good chance of finding a way of earning a living that is also a personal source of ‘flow’ and joy. Any school that can achieve this is providing its students with one of the most wonderful, joyous and inexhaustible gifts available to us in this life.

[1] None of us have more than handful of interesting ideas. At least, I don’t. So I view recycling blog themes as perfectly acceptable.