Joy is no ordinary emotion. It may have a family resemblance to other positive feelings. But there are good reasons to think that joy is unique insofar as it is evoked only when we are in a close, intimate connection with goodness, truth and beauty. And these are the ‘ultimate’ values: they give our lives purpose and make life worth living. So joy could scarcely be more important to us.
If this understanding of joy is right, then we would have a good explanation as to why our lives might be so ‘joy-less’: we have become disconnected, estranged or alienated from what is good, beautiful and true.
Perhaps we’ve become caught up in the undercurrent of greed and self-absorption that drives the ambitions of our work colleagues. It may be that we’re no longer interested in creating beauty for its own sake: we now only care about the profit margins. It could be that we rarely do the right thing anymore just because it is right, but more for the virtue-signals we can post on social media. Or perhaps we have come to think that choosing truth over expediency is a luxury we can no longer afford.
But we’re not all like this, or at least not most of the time. The famine of joy in our lives might instead be due to the fact that goodness, beauty and truth are themselves so rare. They seem to be scattered through our lives in only the most meagre, thin-bare patches.
By contrast, their opposites seem to be the dominant forces at work in the world. All we hear about in the media is corruption at the highest levels, cruelty, discrimination, environmental degradation, poverty, preventable disease and barefaced lies. It is no wonder that many of us retreat into despair, hopelessness or cynicism. In a world like this, it’s hard not to assume that experiences of joy could only be available to those who live in a gated community of obliviousness, denial or self-indulgence.
And yet, could it not be that goodness, truth, and beauty are in fact the ‘default’ values in our world, and so are far more widely distributed than we might suppose? After all, the media only picks up on the most ‘clickable’ events, and these will always be the extremes. They are the stories that stand out simply because they are the anomalies. In other words, perhaps we have swallowed a wildly misleading impression of what the world is really like.
So, aside from turning off or dialling down the news, how we can become ‘reconnected’? How can we shift to a more joyful life?
First, we can focus more on whatever is good, beautiful or true in the present moment, the slices of ‘now’ that fill the frame of our conscious experience. We are so often busy ruminating about a past that we wish had never happened. Or our heads are stuck in an imagined future that, for all we know, may never eventuate. Meanwhile, we miss out on seeing the goodness, beauty and truth that is right in front of us. They keep slipping away as each moment passes, along with the potential for joy.
Second, we can shift the spotlight of our attention. For instance, how many times have we seen the immense selflessness, courage and compassion of ordinary humans come to the surface when there is a terrible crisis or tragedy? Goodness, beauty and truth can often be found in the last places we might think to look.
Again, we might think that joy is an emotion that only pays a visit to those who live charmed lives, where everything goes to plan, and no real pain or difficulty ever darkens their door. But this just isn’t true. Like all emotions, joy does not arise out of the blue, disconnected from the stream of thoughts, feelings and emotions that precede it. One pattern that is most distinctive to joy is the way in which it emerges, often in its most intense form, after we have suffered a devastating tragedy or loss, or unspeakable pain. The reason is this: it is in precisely such awful situations that we experience — and come to appreciate — the kindness of another, or the advent of a deep insight or unexpected inner growth.
In other words, we often recognise the goodness, truth and beauty around us only as a result of experiencing their opposites. As Helen Edmundson so poignantly puts it in her play “The Heresy of Love”:
“. . . we cannot value our success without the times that we have failed. We cannot love the gift of life without the knowledge that we will die. We cannot cherish a newborn child unless we understand its frailty, nor can we look upon the blossom tree, and feel its beauty kiss our eyes with tears, unless we can remember it in wintertime.”
Finally, goodness, beauty and truth are also far more likely to be found in the smaller, quieter, more ordinary places. They tend to shy away from the glamorous, the media-savvy, or the ‘loudest voice in the room’. A scientist’s long and exacting analysis of the data requires the kind of commitment to truth that is rarely seen or acknowledged. The compassionate care of a hospice nurse will never be Instagram fodder, let alone make the mainstream news.
So how can we have more joy in our lives? How can we connect up more intimately with what is good, beautiful and true in our lives?
We can live more fully in the present moment.
Though we must never turn our backs on the terrible injustice and suffering people are experiencing, we can remember to see the incredible goodness and beautiful spirit of those who are responding to it.
We can try not to be consumed by the biggest and the loudest voices, and instead notice what is going on in the smaller, quieter places.