Angela Köckritz: On Discovering Lightness
There’s probably no better story about when and where an author started writing a book than that of the journalist Angela Köckritz: She had been on a trip to Senegal, sitting on the beach looking out at the sea during a blackout, when she felt that she’d like to write a little something. That little something then turned into a whole book. A book about different kinds of joy and about what happens in our brains when we feel it.
Ms. Köckritz, you’ve explored the topic of joy as if it were uncharted territory, although one might think that we should actually be quite familiar with the feeling of joy?
Of course, we all know joy. What fascinated me as I was writing my book was the realization that each type of joy has its own color, its own texture, its own taste. As I began to focus my attention on these different kinds of joy, I realized there are so many more joys than I had ever imagined.
It was a joyful surprise so to say.
I thought joy was a feeling I understood very well. When I looked more closely, however, I realized there’s so much more. It’s a bit like thinking about how many different types of cheese there are, probably hundreds of thousands. Another thing is that one type of joy can have very different nuances. If you enjoy dancing, for example, it can feel very different depending on your mood, on the song, on the time of day. Often joy is something that runs alongside us. We may have something on our mind, things to do, and in between we realize: Ah, I was enjoying myself just there! By working on the book, joy suddenly became my main occupation. [laughs] And just by paying attention to it, I found that my days were filled with much more joy than I had previously realized. Even on those rainy and cold days that I had previously dismissed as rather joyless, there was always something to be happy about.
"I thought joy was a feeling I understood very well. When I looked more closely, however, I realized there’s so much more. It’s a bit like thinking about how many different types of cheese there are, probably hundreds of thousands."
Which aspects of joy have you grown particularly fond of?
I started writing the book during a visit to Senegal, where I had previously lived with my family for a few years. Joy is a universal feeling shared by people everywhere, yet the things that spark joy in different people differ from culture to culture. In Senegal, meeting others is an immensely joyful experience. Senegalese society is much more focused on community and solidarity than ours. Researchers have shown that Africans have much larger social networks than people in other parts of the world, and I’m not talking about social media here. I wouldn’t say that everything is better; there are pros and cons. But greeting people, for example, is a kind of art form in Senegal. People take their time with it, and its elegance is a cultural asset in itself. I personally enjoyed it so much that I am now trying to live it in Berlin as well.
If we imagine getting in a taxi or ordering a cup of coffee in Berlin, these activities aren’t necessarily encounters with other people that one would characterize as joyful.
True, but you can make a start, whether at the bakery or with the neighbor. It’s nicer for everyone if they were really noticed. A good friend of mine calls this a pyramid scheme of good will or good humor. When a cyclist insults you for blundering into his path, then maybe you get upset yourself and then you go on to insult the next person you come across. And so everyone gets angrier and angrier. You can spread joy in the same way. Besides, I also think that not enough people actually get the recognition they deserve.
"Senegalese society is much more focused on community and solidarity than ours. Researchers have shown that Africans have much larger social networks than people in other parts of the world, and I’m not talking about social media here."
Which people do you mean?
All those people who have to get up early in the morning and whose job is important to all of us. Bus drivers, garbage collectors, supermarket cashiers. These are the kinds of people who make our lives better every day. But they often get so little recognition, while on the other hand celebrities are showered with praise and adoration. It’s not like you have to go around constantly telling everyone how great they’ve done their job, it’s just enough to really notice people, talk with them or engage in some friendly banter.
Does this mean that joy is not a matter-of-course but something we can learn?
Yes. And this is in line with recent findings from the field of neuroscience. The key word here is neuroplasticity, which means that our brains are perceptibly modified by our activities – our rituals, tasks and our way of thinking. Let’s take a taxi driver as an example: The areas of his brain responsible for visual thinking will be better developed. This means that every activity that we regularly engage in will have an impact on our brains. Isn’t it good to know that we can teach ourselves how to think, live and feel?
ANGELA KÖCKRITZ, born in Munich in 1977, studied political science, sinology and art history in Berlin, Munich and Taiwan. She did an internship at Süddeutsche Zeitung and has worked for German weekly newspaper Die Zeit since 2007, serving as China correspondent from 2011 to 2014. Her first book, Wolkenläufer: Geschichten vom Leben in China (Cloud Runners: Stories of Life in China), was published in 2015. From 2017 to 2020 she reported from Dakar, Senegal. Angela Köckritz currently lives as a freelance journalist and author in Berlin. Her most recent book, Freude: Über die Entdeckung der Leichtigkeit (Joy: On Discovering Lightness) was published in February by Piper.
So what happens in our brains when we feel joy?
The feeling of happiness is primarily caused by neurotransmitters, a cocktail of opioids produced in the brain that are released into the central nervous system. These substances include serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, and their exact amounts and the way in which they are combined depends on the specific event that triggers the feeling of joy. Serotonin makes us feel tranquil and serene, dopamine provides drive, and oxytocin is released during moments of tenderness. Depending on the specific type of joy, different parts of the brain are stimulated. In the case of material rewards, this is mainly the so-called reward center, the nucleus accumbens. It was discovered by American researchers in the 1950s who taught rats to stimulate this area of their brain by pressing a certain button. Some of the rats pressed the button so much that they became exhausted and even forgot to eat. But the kick only lasts a short time. Other types of pleasure are much more constant, for example the flow that we experience when we are completely absorbed in an activity.
Has the work on the book and this knowledge changed the way you think about of joy?
I’ve become more aware of certain things. While researching the subject, I stumbled upon a famous study conducted by American researchers in 1978 that I still find to be interesting today. The experiment looked at whether lottery winners were happier than other people. While it was true that the lottery winners were extremely happy when they won the money, the researchers found that this didn’t have any effect on their level of satisfaction in the long run.
What about the fact that they were now able to afford things they couldn’t before?
Certainly, their new-found wealth allowed them to buy various luxury products that gave them a sense of joy. At the same time, however, the lottery winnings made their familiar everyday pleasures seem dull in comparison. They experienced new forms of joy, but lost others in the process. I thought about that a lot. And what this shows is that you won’t be much happier just by becoming richer, more successful or more beautiful. Joy is simply there. The best thing to do is to just enjoy it.
Was there anything else that made a lasting impression on you?
Yes, something else I read about was an effect (…)