The very first task for this project on the aesthetics of joy is to understand what joy is: how it works in the body and the brain. If our objective is to create joy, then we must first know what joy is. (It’s also essential to know what joy is not, though I’ll come to this later.)
I’ve been weeding through a number of emotional models, trying to understand how emotions actually work – what are the mechanisms, neural pathways, and chemicals that trigger various emotions? A number of the theories I came across suggest a causal relationship between the physical behaviors and reactions of an emotion and the cognitive perception of that emotion, but not in the order we might think. We like to think our brains control our bodies, but actually some psychologists believe that it is the pre-conscious reactions of our bodies that make us feel a certain way. The James-Lange hypothesis, for example, suggests that felt emotions are the perception of autonomic physical responses to external stimuli. So, in other words, the presence of a snake triggers visceral changes that prime us to react to the threat, such as a quickening heart rate, and it’s the brain’s perception of the change in bodily state that makes us feel the emotion “fear”.
The research on facial feedback is another example, where the same idea has been proposed regarding facial expressions. We think that we smile because we are happy, but actually, some research shows that at least to some extent, the smile comes before the emotional feeling of happiness, and that inducing a smile by contracting a specific set of muscles can make a person feel happier.
In his book, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio continues down this line of reasoning, suggesting that emotion, consisting of the set of bodily responses to a stimulus, and the corresponding feeling in the mind are causally related in the same way. In other words, the body reacts to the stimulus by producing an emotional response – in the case of joy, this might be a smile or laughter, a relaxing of major muscles, the production or suppression of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and so on. The mind then perceives this physical response and appraises the situation, producing a feeling that is entirely internal. Interestingly, a stimulus in Damasio’s world can be either a real event in the environment or it can be a memory.
Damasio’s is the most cohesive account of the this theory I’ve yet read, and though there are quibbles with it, right now I’m finding it a useful framework to start to understand how joy works. Joyful stimuli lead to joyful physical reactions which lead to the feeling of joy. In this framework there are three major areas to explore: triggers, expressions, and feelings.
Which leads to questions… What are the physical expressions of joy? Are the expressions of joy different than the reactions of happiness? In other words, is there anything substantively different between joy and happiness at the level of expression, or is the different in the cognitive appraisal, dictated by context and experience, of the emotional sensations experienced. And then, does that mean that the triggers of joy and of happiness are the same, but are contextually different? Or are they fundamentally different?
One hypothesis could be that joy is an intense form of happiness that arises from the same stimuli but under different conditions… For example, seeing a good friend for a planned dinner might elicit happiness, but seeing a friend who has come in from out of town unexpectedly would elicit joy. Again, expectations play a role. Another hypothesis might be that joy is qualitatively different from happiness and that the triggers are just fundamentally different in nature. For example, a rainbow makes you feel joyful but it is unlikely to create a real sense of happiness. Joy is intense and comes in moments, whereas happiness is more even-keeled, but lasting. This would seem to suggest that they cannot be merely single-axis variants of the same thing…
Image from flickr member Orazio.