Review: Aggressively Happy

Finding happiness in a fallen world

Review: Aggressively Happy

Originally published in the Fare Forward newsletter

Happiness in a fallen world

On the surface, Wendell Berry and Joy Marie Clarkson don’t seem to have much in common. One is an aging poet-farmer who writes on a typewriter in a shed. The other tweets a lot about tea and art. One is generally considered a grump, while the other is often gleeful. But the two are kindred spirits, however unlikely. In the front matter of Joy Clarkson’s new book, Aggressively Happy is a quote from Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” It seems appropriate that Clarkson is the new Books & Culture editor at Plough Quarterly, as both she and Berry have, each in their own way, worked to cultivate a deep appreciation for the goodness of life.

Early in Aggressively Happy, Joy Clarkson tells the story of the book’s title. After tweeting about the pleasure of a new lipstick or some equally innocent frivolity, an unknown commenter declared her to be both disgusting and aggressively happy. In Clarkson’s telling, she’s bemused, but after puzzling over the insult, decides she rather likes the idea and adds “aggressively happy” to her Twitter bio. The question Aggressively Happy concerns itself with, then, is whether or not it is “disgusting” to pursue happiness with gusto—or if, after having considered all the facts, it’s the only way to be joyful in this life.

The question presses because it’s easy to believe brokenness is the basic rule of the world. Lies, after all, must dabble in truth to draw the unwary and weary away into dark woods of doubt (or doom-scrolling). Isn’t this the truth of life in a fallen world? People, perhaps Christians most of all, are not surprised by the catalogue of ignorance, pettiness, and pure venom that the very-online hold in their hands daily. The same darkness greets us on the street when we choose to venture out.

This is the temptation with which Clarkson engages. Despite the potentially off-putting title of Aggressively Happy, Clarkson’s debut eschews toxic positivity and bravely offers “a realist’s guide to believing in the goodness of life”: Because the world is indeed full of heartbreak and tragedy, and yet the whole of creation is good down to its bones, achingly so. Clarkson plants her feet firmly in the fallen world and declares that “a happiness that ignores pain, injustice, and brokenness is not worth having.” What kind of happiness is available then, to the world-weary and those wary of disappointment? Not the easy happiness of a charmed life, insulated from the reality that dogs our every step, “but a happiness that can stand tall, look life in the eye, and smile anyway.” Laying hold of this aggressive happiness, Clarkson writes, is a fight that lasts a lifetime.

Is it worth it? It’s easier to curse the darkness and resign the world to its slow slide into hell, perhaps doubly so for the Christian. Clarkson affirms that very many sad things are indeed true. But goodness and beauty are truer still—they are Creation’s bones, her very essence, though she weeps for a time. So why not try to be happy? Everything is terrible, so light a literal candle in the dark and imagine yourself a dispeller of darkness, however small.

Clarkson invites readers to make the most of life and its pleasures. Not because nothing matters, but because life is a gift. A great big bundle of beauty and pain all tangled together, yet a gift nonetheless. In the book, Clarkson weaves memoir together with knowledge of theology and art and does so with the insight of one deeply attuned to the poetry of life. As in her popular podcast, Speaking with Joy, she mines classic and contemporary works for clues to the deeper magic of reality. A reality of gift and givenness, where “happiness and sadness are sisters” who sing the same song: life—all of this—matters. Mourning is the prelude to rejoicing.

The power of Clarkson’s argument rests on her position as a realist. Although she is possessed of a lighthearted wit and feels free to dabble in whimsy—she shares a story of discovering a serendipitous scone in her coat pocket, altering the course of her day—Clarkson refuses to close her eyes. There is no retreat to fantasy, to either the dreamworlds of the idealist or the nihilist. Instead, she is a hopeful realist whose faith in the goodness of the universe rests in the ultimate reality of a creative and loving God. Her faith is what brings her to close her ten rules for an aggressively happy life with this stark reminder: “the world will end.” And yet, again, she can do this not because everything is meaningless in the end, but quite the opposite. Nothing will be wasted. Every thread of our existence—all manner of tragedy and along with every humble joy—will find its place in the final tapestry of God’s lovingkindness.

If goodness is the truest thing about reality, then it’s possible to pursue joy bravely in the clear light of day, confidently and unapologetically.

This great hope of the Christian faith may be small comfort to those who find themselves unwilling or unable to believe. Even so, Clarkson writes for the doubtful as fellow passengers through the fog of existence. She does not attempt to offer proof. Instead, she directs her attention to honest descriptions, inviting readers to come and see, looking for evidence in place of answers. Like Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, Clarkson accepts the presence of doubt but “maintains that life is made more sensible, more beautiful when it is lived as though God exists.” Whether intended or not, the entire book is an example of how to argue the case for faith and truth—without arguing at all.

Who, then, is Aggressively Happy for? It’s for those who attempt to guard their small store of happiness with high walls, forever plugging holes with platitudes, desperate for a happiness that can survive the rigours of reality. The book is also for those who believe wisdom must be dour and wearying, who see waste in every bouquet of flowers, and who secretly wish they did not see the world aright. This book, then, is for that great mass of people who want to be happy, across the spectrum of privilege, need, and knowledge, but don’t see how they could possibly be so.

Like a surprise scone in your pocket, Aggressively Happy is a small delight that can make all the difference. Yes, a great many sad things are true; this is irrefutable. But if goodness is the truest thing about reality, then it’s possible to pursue joy bravely in the clear light of day, confidently and unapologetically.

These are the facts. Rejoice!

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