What is joy?

20 February 2009 by Ingrid

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately into definitions of joy. I have this idea of what joy means to me, and to this project, in my head, but I’m realizing there are differences of opinion. A “joy vs. happiness” google led me to a large number of Christian message boards, where I realized that in some religious circles there is a distinctly different definition of joy. According to a number of these posts, joy is something lasting and spiritual, an inner happiness that comes directly from God. Happiness is externally driven, dependent on things that “happen” to you. (Writers point to the common root hap-, which relates to chance and fortune.)

I can understand this definition, but it is important for me to note that it is completely contrary to my definition of joy. In my mental model, as I think is true for many people, happiness is a state of mind, a general form of positive emotion. Joy, on the other hand, is a momentary burst of positive emotion, triggered by an external source.

Joy also gets conflated with happiness in many writings, or substituted entirely for it. I don’t want confusion, but I’m not going to get the whole world to agree on one definition of joy. What I really need is just to clearly define what joy means in the context of this exploration. So, here’s a starting point, a list of characteristics that define the concept I mean when I refer to “joy.”

  • Joy is a kind of positive emotion or feeling.
  • Joy is physical as well as mental. Joy is also physical, before its mental. (Damasio)
  • Joy is a momentary burst of emotion, rather than a prolonged state of being, like contentment or happiness.
  • Joy is an intense form of happiness, but not as intense as ecstasy or euphoria.
  • Joy is an energizing form of happiness, in contrast to bliss or contentment, which are calming and serene.
  • Joy typically is triggered by an external stimulus, which may be further reinforced by stimulating memories related to joy.
  • But, memory is not necessary to feel joy, because even very young children feel joy.
  • Joy seems to have something to do with expectations. Unexpected positive events are more likely to be joyful than anticipated ones. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy is renewable. The same stimulus can trigger joy over and over again. (Essential, core premise.)
  • Joy, unlike ecstasy, has no hangover. While intense highs of positive emotion can leave you feeling down after they pass, joy usually leaves you feeling better than before. In this case, we might say that joy has a positive hangover, and may have lasting effects on emotional wellbeing. (Hypothesis)
  • Joy has a playful, active quality to it.
  • Joy is often connected with children or a child’s world view.
  • Pleasure is a component of joy, but is not itself joy. Pleasure is part of a lower order, dialectical system (the pain-pleasure responses) involved in homeostasis. Pain and pleasure responses are naturally activated as part of the process of emoting, which is why emotions are (nearly?) always perceived as positive or negative. But, the emotion also involves a more complex series of responses.

The act of writing down my assumptions, beliefs, and learnings about joy was very powerful. Whereas before I felt a little bit lost in the thicket of data, now I feel like I have a point of departure from which to work in testing my premises. Sometimes we hesistate to commit ideas to paper until they’re worked through and clear in our minds. But when there’s still a lot you don’t know, it’s really helpful just to get the ideas out and be able to look at them.

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