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What Is Joy and What Does It Say About Us?

An interview with Dr. Pamela King on the meaning and depth of joy.

Pamela King, used with permission
Source: Pamela King, used with permission

What is joy? It is not mere happiness, but it is also not devoid of it. Joy is a core human experience, but we often don't understand the true depth of its meaning in our lives.

Through her research, Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D., has sought to understand joy. She is the Peter L. Benson Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Science at the Thrive Center for Human Development in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests focus on the intersection of human thriving, moral, and spiritual development. King is coauthor of The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, and co-editor of The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. Her research has been published in various journals such as Developmental Psychology, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Applied Developmental Science, Journal of Research on Adolescence, Journal of Positive Psychology, and The Journal of Psychology and Theology. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA.

This is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Dr. Pamela King; you can find Part 2 of this series, along with all other Hope + Resilience posts, here.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Pamela Ebstyne King: Pre-COVID 19, the phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” captured many Americans’ aim in life. Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want their children to be happy? That said, through my research in the last two decades on human thriving, I have noticed that happiness can be a fleeting feeling that might accompany a slice of pizza and passes as soon as I digest it! As a developmental psychologist, I have interviewed and studied exemplary and ordinary lives. I have observed that many people have an enduring and underlying sense of something that is deeper than the emotion of happiness, and I have come to describe this as joy. In my study of joy, I have also noticed that joy is more complex than a feeling or an emotion. It is something one can practice, cultivate, or make a habit. Consequently, I suggest that joy is most fully understood as a virtue that involves our thoughts, feelings, and actions in response to what matters most in our lives. Thus, joy is an enduring, deep delight in what holds the most significance.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

PEK: Given that joy has been grossly overlooked by psychologists, this was not a typical research project of collecting and analyzing data. My intention was to define joy and propose a framework for future research. The fact that joy is understudied is surprising. It’s a core part of being human. We have all experienced joy—both the overwhelming and animating experiences of joy that may surprise and overtake us and the calm, and the enduring joy, which sustains us. Generally, we want more of it. We’ve all yelped, shouted, or smiled in delight upon hearing good news about our health or the health of a loved one, finding a lost, precious object, or accomplishing something meaningful. These experiences bring life meaning and continue to motivate and direct us. That said, there have been no real clear theories or research that explain what prompts this kind of deep joy, nor have we had a framework for distinguishing joy from delight, fun, happiness, or thrill. Most people associate joy with goodness—good experiences, relationships, or objects. But what qualifies as the kind of “good” that produces life-altering, enduring joy?

JA: What did you discover in your study?

PEK: A helpful way of thinking about joy is understanding what matters most in human life. Reviewing philosophical, theological, and psychological approaches, I identified three areas that deeply inform joy. They are (1) growing in authenticity and living more into one’s strengths, (2) growing in depth of relationships and contributing to others, and (3) living more aligned with one’s ethical and spiritual ideals. I hypothesize that the more one is able to live a strength-based life, reciprocate relationships with others, and live with moral coherency, the more joy one will experience in life. This suggests that joy is not just an individual pursuit, but one that deeply involves our connections with others. We can discover and experience joy in a variety of ways—doing those things we love to do, growing in intimacy or providing for others, and clarifying and coherently pursuing our values. When these domains of the self, others, and values overlap, that is perhaps when we experience the most joy.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

PEK: Joy is really complex! This work helped me realize how joy and sorrow are deeply connected. Both are a response to those things that matter most. Joy is our delight when we experience, celebrate, and anticipate the manifestation of those things we hold with the most significance—like a birth or graduation. Sorrow is our response to the violation, destruction, or deterioration of such sacred things. This perspective helps us understand why the loss of human life due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the devaluing of human life evident in structural racism leave many grieving and in such profound sorrow. However, this complexity also informs how we can experience joy and sorrow at the same time, how true joy that is tied to our potential to grow as an individual and relate and give to others, and how our values can endure in the face of loss and suffering. The trick is to stay connected to those things that deeply matter in the face of adversity and loss.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series, along with all other Hope + Resilience posts, here.

Follow Dr. Pam King on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, or ResearchGate.

References

Dr. Pam King’s current research includes studies on environments that promote thriving and on the nature and function of spiritual development in diverse adolescents and emerging adults. She has extensively studied and written on conceptualizations of thriving and positive youth development.

King, P. E. (2019). Joy Distinguished: Teleological Perspectives of Joy as a Virtue. Journal of Positive Psychology, 15:1, 33-39, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1685578

King, P. E., & Defoy, F. (2020). Joy as a Virtue: The Means and Ends of Joy. Journal of Psychology and Theology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091647120907994

King, P. E. & Argue, S. (2020). #joyonpurpose: Finding joy on purpose. In D. White and S. Farmer (Eds). Joy as Guide to Youth Ministry. Nashville: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church.

Yale Divinity School: Dr. Pamela Ebstyne King on Purpose and Joy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT8SzeJWM94

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