Courtney M. McSwain, Writer

What is Joy? (There are no answers here.)

Peace Image

(Photo: The Peace of Being With You, Martin Gommel (cc))

When I entered the question “what is joy?” into my web browser’s search engine, I expected to find a plethora of blog posts and articles defining and exploring joy. To my surprise, there weren’t very many. That could be because, according to a Time Magazine health article, scientific emotion research has focused almost exclusively on the morose band of human emotions, rather than the sunnier ones. In the few instances where I did find useful discussions on joy, the feeling was often made synonymous with happiness, fun or pleasure.

I have my doubts about joy being easily understood as a synonym for fun or pleasure – maybe happiness is a closer cousin. It seems the former are too highly dependent upon external forces, whereas joy involves something that is more internally driven. I was comforted when I came across Zadie Smith’s essay entitled “Joy,” published last year in the New York Times, which begins: “It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused.”

In her essay, Smith draws what I think is the most important distinction between pleasure and joy: Joy doesn’t always feel good. Feeling joy might actually involve pain or discomfort; and yet we wouldn’t, in the end, trade in the opportunity to experience joy because the reward is so much greater than any pain we could imagine. Smith illustrates this point as she describes her perspective on parenthood.

“Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.”

I have to admit, Smith’s outlook on the issue offers encouragement, as I’ve come to realize creative life isn’t always the epitome of fun. But, that doesn’t mean joy doesn’t live here. If joy was understood as an internal acceptance of, rather than an external reaction to, life’s experiences, artists and changemakers might find it easier to experience joy on a consistent basis.

Here, I’d like to present my three (working) ideas for what joy is:

An acceptance of exactly where we are. In this T+L Magazine article, travel writer Gary Shteyngart shares a delightful reflection of how directionally inept he is. His penchant for getting lost has often led Shteyngart to wonderful discoveries about the places he has visited, and he bemoans the loss of our ability to simply wander into new experiences. “If you end up on the wrong side of the mountain around dinnertime, the seeing sun won’t just illuminate the twin porticoes of that hilltop church, it will set fire to them with godlike intensity. But you will have to get lost to find these things,” he writes.

Shteyngart’s reflections remind me that I, too, am extremely directionally challenged. Knowing this about myself, you’d think I wouldn’t get so upset whenever I miss an exit driving. Yet, after ten years of traveling from Washington, D.C., to my parents’ house in North Carolina, I can still manage to miss a crucial exit, sending me an hour outside of my original travel route. And while I’m always initially frustrated when this happens, my anger subsides when I take time to notice the mountainous hills and natural landscapes around me – things I would’ve missed if I had stayed on the major highways. Maybe joy comes as a result of accepting where we are – not lamenting or chasing where we think we should be.

An acceptance of the small gifts of life. In her essay on joy, Smith delivers a magnificent musing: “All day long, I can look forward to a popsicle.” I have similar feelings about coffee. Before self-employment, I would lull myself out of bed in the mornings with the promise of the cup of coffee that was waiting for me at work. I love the experience of drinking coffee, probably more than coffee itself. I love sitting down with a warm cup and taking the first soothing sip, which seems to stop time. For those minutes it takes to drink up cup of coffee, I’m not under deadline or duress, but simply enjoying a small, simple pleasure of life.

Oops, I used the word pleasure. But I thought you said joy wasn’t the same thing as pleasure, you’re thinking. I guess you’re right. Pleasure has something to do with joy. But perhaps the real joy comes from the acceptance that this very small thing can bring great, joyous rewards. Artists and changemakers need simple retreats to help us remember joy.

An acceptance that pain is a part of it. This might be the most important point about joy. In my June dear reader letter, I made the point that pain is part of the creative process. It’s not the creative process in total, but I do believe it comes up. However, we get into trouble with pain when we don’t see the other side to it. What if we decided that pain was just one part of the process of joy? Or, to use a familiar cliché, if we don’t know pain, how can we really know joy? Moreover, if we don’t accept that pain is a part of it, we may retreat without allowing joy to emerge.

As the title of this post suggests, there are no answers here. This is more of a brainstorm than a thesis. And with the field of research on joy wide open, now seems to be a good time for artists and changemakers to have a conversation about what joy means to us. What do you have to say about joy? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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