Joy Amid the Terror

Joy occurs when we allow the experience of being alive to mean the most to us.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

When people speak of “joy” they can mean a variety of things. They might refer to an emotion or a sensation (pleasure) or behaviors (engaging in pleasant activities) or moods (happiness) or transcendent spiritual states.

In my long clinical experience, the predominant psychological conflation is mashing joy with pleasure.

Although both can feel terrific, joy is an emotion, while pleasure is a sensation. Like all emotions, joy prepares us for action. It motivates appreciation of (and emotional connection to) something outside the self.

Think of what happens physically when you experience joy. You want to stand up straight and reach upward or outward—to “jump for joy.” You want to embrace someone or something, either literally or in your imagination. Joy is an expansive emotion—it makes us “larger” and heightens the experience of being alive.

While joy expands the self with an appreciation of the wonders of another person, the world, or God, pleasure contracts the self in a stream of internal sensations. Where joy is about a connection to the world around us, pleasure is about the self. Joy resolves in a residue of well-being; peak pleasure often drops us down lower than it picked us up—at best we feel exhausted, at worst, guilty or ashamed. If we go beyond the peak of joy, we know rapture, a soaring heart. Prolonging intense pleasure causes pain.

Joy is almost always consistent with your deepest values; pleasure-seeking often violates your deepest values. We honor those who know the joy of life—they seem to possess a special kind of wisdom, grace, skill, or innocence. But we scorn life’s “pleasure-seekers” as shallow and self-obsessed. We don’t think of paradise as unending pleasure; we think of it as continuous joy. We sing, “Joy to the world!” not “Pleasure to the world.” We indulge pleasure, we celebrate joy.

Doing something pleasurable provides only a temporary diversion from the everyday emotions that, accumulatively, define our existence. The purpose of joy is to motivate behavior that will make us connect, renew, appreciate, and love, in short, to transform our existence. Implicit in joy is the hope of a more valuable life. 

To experience joy:

  • Appreciate, don’t judge. Joy requires an open mind and an open heart.
  • Embrace your vulnerability, don’t deny or avoid it or blame it on someone else. We must be aware of vulnerability to transcend it; to experience the wonder of being alive, we must acknowledge the terror of being alive.
  • Connect. We can connect to almost everyone in the world on a basic humanity level by accepting that we’re all more humane than not.

Pent Up Joy

If there is such a thing as pent up anger, there is also pent up joy. We have a natural desire to appreciate and experience joy. (Just watch infants and toddlers.) When we deny that desire, we suffer frustration, depression, anxiety; to paraphrase Hamlet, the world seems dull, flat, and unprofitable. 

Joy is the most contagious of positive emotions. In the presence of joyful persons, we’re likely to partake of the joy, at least vicariously. And that is why joy has the potential to improve society. When we experience joy, we affect everyone around us, just as when we experience anger or resentment, we make those around us angry or resentful.

But don’t focus on spreading or communicating joy. Focus on experiencing it, and it will spread on its own.