For many African Americans, bad news is part of our daily routine—from the rampant police violence against Black and Brown people to the lives lost by the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted those same communities.

Things have gotten so intolerable that we’re putting our health on the line every night to demand justice in the streets, bringing attention to some of those same atrocities, and traumatizing ourselves all over again. On top of that, we’re being asked to help explain and topple white supremacy across all industries.

With all these urgent obligations and enraging events, Black joy can not only seem impossible but also trivial considering the state of the world today. But according to Latasha Matthews—an individual, couple, and family therapist in Lawrenceville, Georgia—achieving happiness often comes down to prioritizing our relationship with it even as we confront seemingly insurmountable odds.

“Joy is an inside job,” she explained. “So, [you must] be very intentional about taking those steps to create your own joy, instead of waiting for external factors to show up and bring you joy. You are part ownership of creating that joy.”

One of the most pressing external factors that Black people have been fighting for since the beginning of time is racial equality. The continued absence of it has jeopardized our mental health, physical health, as well as our overall quality of life.

But it is critical to understand how joy can be centered in every aspect of our lives and the recent progress we have made, including removing ourselves from toxic workplaces and romantic relationships, reflect that.

“Some of us have been in environments that didn’t really serve us and are making quick pivots to position ourselves around people that appreciate us and enter relationships with those that really want to be around us,” Matthews said. “Those are basic steps to take in order to be authentic about our choices.”

Happiness is already a part of our ongoing journey. We’re not necessarily lacking it. Rather, it can be difficult to realize it, especially now. But even outside some of the systemic changes we’re making on our own behalves, we need to be conscious of the type of energy we’re around and consuming. Matthews said that even activists can find ways to experience joy on a regular basis.

“If you’re protesting five days of the week, and the next two days you’re researching the next protest or campaign, you are burning yourself out,” she added. “You have to take a break from the hard work and ask: ‘What did we accomplish this week?’ or ‘Who did we touch?’ Smell the roses instead of always working to create the roses.”

Those who aren’t on the frontlines also find it hard to recognize happiness in their own lives. While they might not discuss racial injustice every day, they still absorb it on the news and social media. That makes it difficult for them to enjoy their usual activities that bring them joy—from hiking to reading a romance novel or taking a stroll along the water—when so many other people who look like them are in such pain. That can be exacerbated when sharing some of those experiences online or among the community where Black people can be in the thick of their grief process.

But Matthews explained that it’s important to sometimes actively disconnect—including from family and loved ones—in order to alleviate that sense of guilt, or in worse cases shame, that Black people can feel about their positive energy. “Even as a clinician, I have to separate from some friends who want to talk about some of the trauma they’re experiencing,” Matthews said.

She pointed out that some people just want to know that you’re there and listening to them. But there are days when you are just unable to receive that energy and must make a bolder choice. “The other thing that’s very important is telling someone, ‘I don’t think I can hold a space for you today.’ So, being okay with honoring yourself before you take in someone else’s stuff.”

Much of that is because we are all dealing with our own racial trauma that can get stirred up by otherwise innocuous activities that bring us joy. For instance, Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging outside and Christian Cooper was a victim of racial microaggressions while birdwatching in the park. So, we must protect ourselves as we work through that.

“Birdwatching, running, going to the store, and being stopped by police are all things that are going to trigger us right now,” Matthews said. “But we have to begin to deal with some of the trauma we experience daily. Joy may be delayed in some cases until we work through the fear and trauma.”

That’s not to say that joy can’t be experienced at all; just not in the same ways it might have been before. “Now’s a good time to get rid of things that don’t serve you anymore,” Matthews advised. “Maybe trying a new sport or picking up a hobby like playing an instrument. Anything that calms you.

Some people may do kickboxing or something to get some of that anger out. Working out is great. Running marathons, anything that is going to settle you internally would probably bring some joy.”

But Matthews reiterated that readjusting our minds and finding internal ways to achieve pleasure as we navigate the increasingly troubled world around us is the optimal path to joy. “I don’t think joy can be defined by one thing you do,” she said. “It’s being able to make it through a traumatic event and still have some level of peace.”

It’s also about being present in those moments of peace and happiness, so that you can revel in them. “I’ll set intentions at the beginning of the day to recognize when something good is happening,” she concluded. “So, when it shows up for me, I am a lot more grateful because I was looking for it. It has you on the quest to find it and recognize it and appreciate it when it shows up.”

Last Updated: Jun 30, 2020