|On a recent drive to the mountains of NC, my husband and I were talking as NPR played on the radio in the background. I heard a phrase that broke through to my awareness, and I stopped our conversation and turned up the volume. All joy and no fun, I heard repeated again as my husband and I tuned into the interview.
Author Jennifer Senior was being interviewed about her recent book by the same title, whose content is mostly about parenting. Parenting surveys show that children actually do very little to increase a parent’s happiness; however, the emotion that was not measured, according to Senior, was joy.
We listened to the interview until the end, and then began our own conversation about the difference between happiness and joy. We were intermittently quiet, periodically offering a thought about the difference. Here were some of our thoughts:
“I think joy has a spiritual quality. If feels qualitatively different than happiness.”
“Happiness seems fleeting, maybe a little more superficial. Joy is deeper.”
“I feel joy when I am with certain people. With my best friends and family, I have that feeling of deep joy, no matter what happens when we are together.”
“I remember feeling a deep sense of joy when I watched our daughter dance and play the piano. Maybe joy is connected to pride. Knowing your children are doing well and growing up well…I think joy is connected to that.”
“I think joy is connected to gratitude. Often when I am grateful, I think I feel joy at the same time.”
We decided that we would continue the discussion at our parish weekend, which is where we were headed. We didn’t know who would be sharing a cabin with us, but we thought it would be fun to bring it up over a glass of wine that evening. And so we did.
Several others had heard the NPR interview and our cabin mates were quickly involved in the conversation.
People shared moments of joy, most connected to having an awareness of an expanded sense of the meaning of life. It was a sense of “this is really important” or a sense of being connected to something much bigger than just the present moment.
I shared the deep joy I felt at my mother’s deathbed. Surrounded by her husband, children, and most of her grandchildren, we prayed in a circle around my mother and sang a few songs. She died peacefully with us there. I certainly was not happy. I was, in fact, deeply grieved, and yet I felt a profound sense of joy. I felt connected to a Holy Mystery much bigger than I am. I felt connected to my family. I felt sure that all would be well. I actually felt clear on the inside, and so very grateful.
Another shared the tears of joy she felt when learning that her child was spending time with a dear friend of her late brother. Hearing how this person valued and treasured her child’s gifts, knowing that her brother was being remembered through her child, was a joy deep in the bones.
Stories were shared about joy at camp, joy during worship, joy at rituals like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and baptisms, joy during sickness and healing. We shared lines of hymns and poetry that used the word joy. “Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of Glory, Lord of Love.” “Joy to the world, all the boys and girls.” Joy, to some, was also connected to hope, and in some ways, to optimism. What was interesting to me was that we had very little conversation about happiness. In the face of joy, happiness seemed so much less important.
Our culture talks about and focuses almost obsessively on happiness. On any given day you can find endless articles, blogs, and Facebook posts inquiring about what brings you happiness. What makes you happy? But very little is said about joy. And this makes me wonder, how can we, should we shift our focus?
I think joy is a spiritual reality that already exists and our task is just to open up to it. In this way it is like the reality of forgiveness, of hope, of faith, of love, of inclusiveness, and of compassion. What if we focused on the deep, spiritual quality of joy that transcends happiness, transcends sorrow, and transcends other more fleeting qualities in our lives? If we focus on one spiritual reality such as joy, do we more easily open to all the spiritual realities?
This year, I am going to pay careful attention to the quality of joy in life. I will begin by sharing with you that there is something about writing that brings me deep joy. I always feel connected to something bigger than I am. Thank you for sharing in this joy with me!
Below are a few of my favorite quotes about joy, many of which seem contradictory and therefore give us wonderful food for thought.
Joy is not in things; it is in us. ~Richard Wagner
Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is. ~C.S. Lewis
Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. ~Henri Nouwen
Joy lies in the fight, in the attempt, in the suffering involved, not in the victory itself. ~Mahatma Gandhi
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.~Jesus Christ (John 15:11-12)
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy. ~Joseph Campbell
I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.
Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. ~Mother Teresa of Calcutta