What is Joy?

Some people think that love desires to create happiness, whether in ourselves or others.

I believe this is true, but that to understand it we need a more complex explanation of what those words really mean. What is happiness? Is it pleasure of the senses? Good food, good music, good sex, etc., and what makes these things “good” is determined by the pleasure they give us? I doubt it. All of these things can play a role in making us happy, but really, would philosophers have debated for centuries what happiness really is if it were that simple (Maybe. Philosophers do tend to miss the forest for the trees sometimes)?

Let me propose something different. Happiness is a mental feeling. For example, when you have a really exciting day planned, full of doing all the things you love to do, and you wake up in the morning looking forward to it, the very act of imagining the pleasure the day will give you can be enough to make you feel happy.

But why is that? Why does imagining have such power when we tend to think it pales in comparison to the real thing?

My answer: Certainty. If we are worried that tons of things will go wrong in our day, and prevent us from being able to do those things we love to do, it’s because we are uncertain that it will in fact happen the way we want, and so imagining isn’t enough to create the happiness.

I therefore propose that happiness is, in fact, certainty. But of what? Of fulfillment. Every one of us (I imagine) has specific things we would like to be present in our lives, because we feel, at our very core, that those things are somehow right. In other words, we all feel like we have things we need, whether material, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. Happiness, in this view, is certainty that we do in fact have those things: certainty that we have everything we need. Such certainty erases longings, stresses, worries, angers, and what have you.

So what happens if we have more than we need? Or rather, what happens when we feel that not only do we have what need, but that we have what need in an unending abundance? That I call joy. It is happiness above and beyond itself.

Love, I believe, seeks to create as much joy as possible. Thus, for love to succeed, we are required to know (or feel, deeply) not what others desire, but what they need. To love well, we need to attune ourselves to the deep and sincere longings of others, and seek to alleviate those longings.

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5 Responses to What is Joy?

  1. Pingback: To Love Well, Also Enjoy Life Deeply | Accelerate Compassion

  2. John Dunham says:

    William Glasser’s Five Basic Needs are Freedom, Power, Survival, Belonging, and Fun. I apply them often.
    I rather think that happiness is not so much the certainty that we have everything we need, but the acceptance of the uncertainty inherent in life. I could go into how I think happiness is a basic state and that unhappiness is the emotion to be defined. If I had to define it, narrowly, I would say unhappiness is the emotion we feel when the world does not match our expectations. In the same way that pain is our body’s warning sign that we are going outside safe operation, unhappiness is our emotional warning sign that we are going outside safe emotional operation, i.e., that some need is unmet. But I think our brains can no longer tell when needs are and aren’t being met, because our society has warped our perception of needs. Thus, unhappiness must be corrected by first correcting our warped perceptions of our needs.

    • cmdrquack says:

      Glasser’s five needs remind me of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus’s three basic needs: Freedom (that is, self-sustainability, which also means power and survival, to an extent), friends, and free time (in which to have fun and belonging). I wouldn’t be surprised if Glasser drew some inspiration there.

      I’m not so sure I agree with you that happiness is a basic state, but then, if you’re correct about needs-perception being skewed, there are a lot of reasons why I might perceive any such basic state as being more likely to be neutral rather than positive. The biggest issue there is how to a) achieve a basic state (perhaps by stripping away all external things?) and b) how to know when you’ve achieved it.

  3. Sarah Lenz says:

    You should read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (in fact I’m using excerpts of it for my GSW students for my document a personal project unit). In it, she argues that part of deriving the most happiness from an event must include ANTICIPATION. So, half the fun really is in imagining and planing how the happiness is going to go down.

    • cmdrquack says:

      Hmm. I may take a look at it, but to be honest, I’m not interested in “maximizing my happiness returns” so to speak. I’m much more interested in building deep connections with people, places, and all forms of life. I think that if my goal is to maximize the building of those connections (which bring me happiness, and not to mention inner peace), then maximizing the happiness of a particular event becomes irrelevant. I don’t mean to discount your suggestion, though; it may a very good book, and one I can learn from. Thanks for commenting!

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