A Work of Joy.1 < What is Joy in Work, Where has it Gone, How can We bring it Back?

This is the first of a series of blog posts examining Joy in Work – maybe we’ll call it: A Work of Joy! It is part of an ongoing discussion between Dave Kopacz and Sandy Carter on this topic and will include each of our thoughts individually as well as our dialogue on Joy in Work. This first blog will provide a broad outline for subsequent work. We will each start with a monologue and move from there into dialogue.

Dave Kopacz, M.D. works as a psychiatrist at the VA in Primary Care Mental Health Integration. Prior to this he was Clinical Director at Buchanan Rehabilitation Centre in Auckland, New Zealand. He is Board certified in Psychiatry and Integrative & Holistic Medicine. He is the author of Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine.


Sandy Carter, Ph.D. works as a physician coach and consultant. Sandy is a professional certified coach, holds a PhD in organizational management with a specialization in leadership, and Masters in Business Administration and Social Work. Her research is in the area of transformational leadership with physicians, and wellness and resiliency.She heads The Center for Physician Leadership Coaching. 


What is joy in work?

Where has it gone?

How can we bring it back?

Dave: To speak of joy in work can seem like an oxymoron – work is work, after all, isn’t it? The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the roots of “work” as having elements of toil as well as creativity, it can mean a military fortification as well as an artistic labor, Mark Twain wisely points out that the difference between work and play is a matter of conditions or attitude.

Very busy business

Very busy business

Old English weorc…“something done…action (whether voluntary or required)… also “physical labor, toil; skilled trade, craft, or occupation…” “military fortification,” from Proto-Germanic werkan…from Proto-Indian-European werg-o-…“to do…”

Meaning “physical effort, exertion” is from c. 1200; meaning “scholarly labor” or its productions is from c. 1200; meaning “artistic labor” or its productions is from c. 1200…Meaning “embroidery, stitchery, needlepoint” is from late 14c. Work of art attested by 1774 as “artistic creation,” earlier (1728)…

“Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.” [Mark Twain]

“Work,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 11/6/15 

We have a wide range of roots and definitions for the word “work,” at its most simple it is “to do,” and our judgements on that doing determine whether we view it as work or play, hard or easy, meaningless or meaningful. Doing for no reason feels meaningless and tedious, but Doing that is meaningful is rewarding, even if the work is difficult. Sandy notes that we can meet high demands if we have high resources – so in this way success in work depends not only on the external conditions and needs, but also our individual, relational and organizational resources.


In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we read early on in the Bible that human beings have been cast out of the Garden of Eden for their transgression of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. God curses Adam and Eve and their descendants, saying that man must earn his living from the ground with toil and that woman must give birth in pain. We have this deeply ingrained belief that our relationship with work and with our bodies is one that is filled with pain – not joy – and that we have the guilt of “original sin” that taints our lives in this world. (Not all theologian ascribe to this idea, for instance Matthew Fox writes in Original Blessing that there are other spiritual perspectives we can take in the relationship between spirit and matter and that we can find joy in our work in the world).

Original Blessing.2

However, there is also a long tradition in all religions of a sense of joy and joyousness that come from the mystical connection with Spirit. Dorothee Soelle, in her work on mysticism in, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, lists five domains of mystical experience: Nature, Eroticism, Suffering, Community, and Joy. She describes joy as a state of being, rather than a sense of acquisition or momentary pleasure.

The Silent Cry

“In the mystical sense, joy is something not tied to objects or certain experiences of delight. Joy is a matter of ‘rejoicing in’ rather than of being ‘glad about,’” (The Silent Cry, 179).

Henry Van Dyke wrote “The Hymn of Joy,” written in English and set to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which, in turn was inspired by Schiller’s poem, “Ode to Joy.” Here are Van Dyke’s lyrics as an example of spiritual joy.

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,

God of glory, Lord of love;

hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,

Opening to the Sun above,

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;

drive the dark of doubt away;

Giver of immortal gladness,

fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee,

earth and heav’n reflect Thy rays,

stars and angels sing around Thee,

center of unbroken praise:

Field and forest, vale and mountain,

Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea,

chanting bird and flowing fountain,

call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving,

ever blessing, ever blest,

well-spring of the joy of living,

ocean-depth of happy rest!

Thou the Father, Christ our Brother,—

all who live in love are Thine:

Teach us how to love each other,

lift us to the Joy Divine.

Mortals join the mighty chorus,

which the morning stars began;

Father-love is reigning o’er us,

brother-love binds man to man.

Ever singing, march we onward,

victors in the midst of strife;

joyful music lifts us sunward

in the triumph song of life

(“The Hymn of Joy,” Wikipedia, accessed 11/6/15)

Ode to Joy combined 9x12 with tab

Work is our action in the world. Joy is the sense of connection to the greater meaning and purpose in our work.

Rael, Joseph 2

Native American visionary, Joseph Rael was taught by his grandmother that “work is worship,” (Ceremonies of the Living Spirit, 22). This brings a different perspective to work, as in the Native American tradition, every action is sacred and there is no separation between spirit and matter. Zen Buddhism takes a similar approach of spiritualizing mundane tasks, such as “polishing the mirror” or “chop wood, carry water.” In the tradition of Kashmiri Saivism, the ultimate Reality is considered to be “a compact mass of bliss (cidānandaghana),” (Dyczkowski, The Doctrine of Vibration, 44). The ultimate union of Being-Consciousness-Bliss is called “saccidānanada.”

Doctrine of Vibration

This is the “Sat, Chit, Ananda,” that Joseph Campbell speaks of when, after studying the wisdom of the Hindu tradition, he coined the phrase, “follow your bliss,” (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, 149, 285).

Follow your bliss

In this work that we are undertaking, joy will refer to something deeper than a passing emotion such as happiness or the momentary satisfaction of a desire. We will be looking at joy as the underlying substrate of our Being. This comes from a sense of unity within ourselves and a sense of unity and connection with others. To put it very simply, suffering comes from separation and disconnection and joy emerges from a sense of deep connection and unity within one’s self, between self and other, and within community.

Jack Kornfeld, in his foreword to Awakening Joy, addresses this deeper level of joy. “Joy is our birthright…it is innate to consciousness. Joy is a reflection of our true nature,” (Baraz and Alexander, Awakening Joy, xiii-xiv). Kornfeld describes joy in such a way that we can imagine it to be the foundation of our life, the deep, internal ocean currents, strong and perpetual, beneath the passing, tossing waves of the ups and downs of our daily emotional life. The authors of this book (who have been teaching courses on awakening joy since 2003) describe that having a sense of joy is a choice. “Our joy and happiness is up to us. Our suffering and well-being is not solely determined by what’s happening in our present circumstances but to a large degree by our relationship to what is happening,” (Awakening Joy, xviii).

awakening to joy

Joy, in the way we will be discussing it, relates to connection, innate birthright, choice and a spiritual wisdom perspective on life.

The reason that we need to be talking about joy in the work of health care is because it has been lost in most health care work environments: physician burnout, patient dissatisfaction, long wait times, short appointment times, complicated insurance bureaucracies, costly co-payments and deductibles (for those lucky enough to have insurance) – in short, joyless experiences in giving, receiving, managing, and reimbursing health care. We take a holistic perspective that these variables cannot be dealt with in an isolated way: patient satisfaction cannot be considered without staff well-being and without considering the human needs of administrative and leadership staff. It is all of one piece. That is what we learn when we set off in search of joy – just like in the Wizard of Oz, we already have it within ourselves, but we must set off on a journey of self-exploration in which we support each other’s quest to realize and manifest what it is that we have lost or felt we never had in the first place.

In this joyful work we are undertaking, we will draw on diverse fields of human study, both ancient and modern, including: mysticism, spirituality, poetry, personal growth, well-being, positive psychology, business, economics, leadership, neuroscience, systems theory and relational science. We will look at how to manifest joy at the individual level, interpersonal level and communal level. Fundamental to manifesting joy at all these levels is the principle of connection – connection to dimensions of Self, connection between individuals, and connection in groups and communities. Joy is an emergent property that manifests from a sense of deep connection. We will then look at practical applications of joy at each of these levels and also in relation to leadership in health care and models of health care reform, such as the Triple Aim of the Institute for Health Care Improvement.

Next week we will publish Sandy’s monologue, then the dialogue will start…

A Work of Joy!

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