Are you too smart for joy?

The other day, I heard the following quote:

“Joy is time spent without purpose.”

Or at least, I think I heard it. There’s a note in my phone which suggests I did. However, I’ve just googled the quote, and the first five results had nothing to show me. I can’t speak to the remaining 213,000,000, except to suggest that they work a little harder at search engine optimization.

When I first heard the phrase - "joy is time spent without purpose" - I thought, yes. This is exactly right. But when a Google search came up empty, I second guessed myself. Did I mishear the quote? And if so, is what I thought I heard any less true?

Google raises bigger existential questions than I am prepared to tackle here. For now, let’s just focus on what I thought I heard.

"Joy is time spent without purpose." When I first heard it, I did the miserly old-soul routine. I’m too enlightened for time spent without purpose. Then I remembered that, the other day, I mopped the floor by scooting around with two Clorox wipes under my feet. I also had to Google whether the world is more or less than a million years old. (Spoiler: More. A lot more.) So maybe "enlightened" was pushing it. But still: I couldn't remember the last time I did something without purpose. Everything I do is purposeful, right?


Last Saturday, I was saying goodbye to one of my friend’s cats. Not goodbye forever - just goodbye for maybe five days. Mo had been cooly avoiding eye contact all evening, but by 11pm he was exhausted and receptive (read: resigned) to my presence. I leaned my face very close to his snuggly fur and told him that he is beautiful. I told him that I’d had a great time, even though he had ignored me, and I hoped he would warm up a little sooner at my next visit. (If I ended first dates this way, there would be a lot more first dates.) I whispered at that cat for about two minutes. Incidentally, that’s how long my joy lasted.

Mo, resigned to my presence

I was content when I left. But when I was talking to Mo, I was joyful. I know it was joy, because it lacked purpose. Nothing is more pointless than talking to a cat.

Yes, I’m one of those cat lovers who isn’t quite prepared to award them phenomenal consciousness. They are not "just like us." So maybe my soul is a little old? Or maybe I’ve just sat through too many philosophy classes? Classes with weird vegan atheists who get more defensive about animal rights than human ones? Maybe it's that.

I was comforted to learn from this brief interaction with Mo that I am still fully able to experience joy. It isn’t a biannual event, either; it’s roughly concurrent with the number of times I see a pack of wild turkeys (which is often, in Wisconsin), or I’m strolling through the suburbs and see a cat staring boredly and blankly through the living room window. The cat looks temporarily excited to see me - joyful, even? - before realizing I’m not a squirrel. I know, man. I was disappointed too.

You know what I like best about this definition - "joy is time spent without purpose?" It gives me permission to do more purposeless things. It legitimizes them. It gives them - well - a purpose.

Today, I’m in the mountains, visiting a close friend of mine. I had to buy a plane ticket, which threatened my financial goals. I had to take a day off work, which was counter to my professional ones. And I had to prioritize distant friends over proximal ones, which called my interpersonal goals into question. My general needs to be frugal, practical, and conservative were shaken up a bit. As soon as I heard the quote - "joy is time spent without purpose" - I thought, Yes! That’s why I’m here. Joy is why.

Challenge yourself: What can you do without purpose today?