You know when you look across at a concert and you realise you’re singing the same song at the same time with 2000 other people and that you’re happy and the chances are that the 2000 people around you are happy as well?”

These are moments of collective joy.

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, author and researcher Brene Brown talks about these ‘moments of collective joy’ and ‘moments of collective pain’, such as funerals. She writes that true belonging is when we as humans turn up to celebrate and commiserate those moments, both joyful and painful.

I thought about this concept a lot last Friday as I was privileged to be at an Australia Day BBQ with my dearest friends. It was the most beautiful day; the BBQ was on, the wine and the beer was flowing, the kids were playing in the pool. I took a moment to register that this was exactly what Brene Brown was talking about – moments of collective joy.

I’ve been blessed to have 30 years of friendship, companionship and good times with these fabulous people. Over the afternoon and evening, we laughed about old memories and we talked about our families and truly enjoyed each other’s company. Fortunately, we have had many opportunities over the last couple of years to join together; 50th birthdays, weddings, BBQ’s, all of us making a real effort to get together more often.  

Yet on the flip side, while we were celebrating Australia Day, the traditional landowners of this amazing country weren’t doing the same kind of celebrating. Brene Brown urges us “to hold hands with strangers” and she also says that “it’s hard to hate people close up”. I’ve never really tried to understand what it is that is so painful about Australia Day for Aboriginal people. Considering that myself and my social circle are not directly affected by the pain that has been caused, past and present, seeking to understand the complexities of Australia Day has been a reflective process for me.

I posted on my Facebook feed that I will continue to be constantly delighted by everything that Australia has to offer and to be so grateful to have been brought up in this fabulous land. But, I will also continue to feel great sorrow and deep regret for the way Aboriginal people have been treated in Australia. Both of those emotions are valid and they’re not mutually exclusive.  I can feel great joy in living in Australia and I can also feel great sadness at the way that my life was at the expense of the happiness of many Aboriginal people. With a mindset of abundance there is plenty for everybody, nobody needs to lose in order for the other person to win. With a mindset of scarcity, we set people against each other. History of mankind is full of invasion stories, takeover stories, stories of one group being more powerful than the other – these are all examples of scarcity. In a country like Australia, we come from a land of plenty – enough for all of us. There is plenty to share. Nobody needs to miss out, or feel less than anyone else.

I’ve also been thinking a little bit lately about how, while I teach the tenants of positive psychology, people often misunderstand and believe that they have to be happy all the time – being a Pollyanna, pumping sunshine and looking for only good things. I think it’s really important to understand and embrace some of our less pleasant emotions and understand that sadness, grief, guilt, and shame are equally as valuable. Barbara Fredrickson, researcher and author of Positivity, uses the analogy of a sail boat. She says, ‘When sailing, it’s the wind that fills the sails and propels the boat forward. In life, it’s positive emotion that fills our sails and propels us forward. However, on a sailboat a keel is really important. Without a keel, the boat would not stay upright and it would lose direction. In the same way, our negative emotions are very important, and whilst they keep us on track, they don’t propel us. But they do help us to understand where it is that we’re going.

So over Australia Day I did lots of thinking about how I can continue to enjoy moments of collective joy, how I can take opportunities to hold hands with strangers, and how important it is to realise that you can’t hate people close-up. I need to continue to practice compassion and to “seek first to understand.”