Where does joy come from?

Once when I was in Sunday School the teacher told us that the difference between happiness and joy was that happiness depends on your circumstances but joy comes from God. I was not the only one in the class to question that analysis. It looked to me as just an example of a word game, namely changing the definition of a word to fit one’s own preconceptions. This also was right about that time that I decided that going to Sunday School was a total waste of my time.

But that does leave the question, what is joy, and where does it come from?

Here is what that Sunday School teacher would call the “worldly” definition:

joy |joi|nounfeeling of great pleasure and happiness : tears of joy | the joy of being alive.a thing that causes joy : the joys of Manhattan.(from the Dictionary app on my MacBook)

Of course, knowing a dictionary definition does not tell you what it’s like to experience joy. Here are the times and places where I experience joy:

  • When perfectly balanced and poised in Utthita Trikonasana (or a number of other yoga poses.)
  • Yesterday when I was doing underwater back-flips in the pool with Taylor.
  • When playfully chasing my puppy around the house.
  • When reading or studying and finding out a new and fascinating fact or perspective I never knew before.
  • When gazing at a wildflower and checking whether the stem is fuzzy or smooth, and how many petals it has, and what the leaves look like so I can identify it in a field guide later.
  • When alone and snuggling with my Sweetheart.

Generally, when I experience joy is when I am totally in the present moment, and not concerned with happened in the past or what will happen in the future. It’s not so much concerned with my circumstances as it is with my state of mind in that moment.

Joy is a state of mind. It comes from within, and could not come from anywhere else.

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11 thoughts on “Where does joy come from?

  1. I’m intrigued. Your Sunday school teacher gave a coiny answer, but God or Evolution…where does that deep joy come from? Is it circumstancial – playing with your children or puppy? Is it dependant on wildflowers or a signficant other? Even to believe that it comes from God – as I do (i.e. my email address – still renders the question of circumstancial joy (being blessed, forgiven, etc.). I enjoy (to be “in joy”) engaging other perspectives – I found your blog when fine-tuning my sermon on joy tomorrow.

    thanks for the inspirational thought. – Ryan

    • God or Evolution? That is comparing apples and oranges… Evolution is not a god, nor is it a replacement for God. It is a very robust explanation for the diversity of life on Earth and the commons genetic threads that connect all forms of life together. That our capacity for joy is an evolved capacity, I have no doubt. I also am aware that joy feels transcendent and above nature–but I think that transcendence is an illusion. My dreams seem real when I am sleeping, but that doesn’t make them any less illusory.

      At any rate joy, like any emotion, is a bit etherial and hard to pin down to an exact explanation or source. Even if we know everything about what causes it in the brain, that would not say much at all about what it’s like to experience joy. Explanation versus experience is like the difference between reading about what happens when you dive into a pool and actually diving into the pool yourself.

      Enjoy . . . “in joy” . . . I like that little play on words. I think that actually sums up what joy is for me. To enjoy life in general, though relationships and meaningful activity, is what I think it really means to have the ‘deep joy’ you mentioned.

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  3. I am struggling with a lack of joy in my life, so I am not the best one to answer this question. But the tiny clues I have been finding are:
    - actions and activities that are purposeful and meaningful
    - diversity of activities in the day, in the month, in the year. i.e. changes
    - being in the moment, as described above
    - not rushing through something
    - socializing with people that nurture our intellect, our souls, our sense of humour and that we share positive energy with (family, friends, strangers at a party…)
    I can have joy baking a cake, taking bread out of the oven, going for a walk, interacting with my pet, improving a habit, helping someone who can appreciate your help, even turning a dirty bathroom into a clean one.
    And what brings a lack of joy?
    - too small are social circle
    - too much work, but especially too little
    - pain that interferes with thought
    - stagnancy
    Of course, there are many other things, such as financial, relationship or workplace stresses. But we all have some of these latter ones.

    I found that I as I transition to a mainly vegetarian/vegan diet, I am happy because I am doing something that has great purpose and meaning: reducing harm and incredible cruelty to animals. I also started growing bean sprouts, and this has been giving me great joy because it has meaning to me. It is also something I failed at before, but now I have read instructions and I’m having better luck. When those beans start to sprout and I pop a few in my mouth, I feel joy. It may not last, but it is a good moment within the day.

  4. I have another question… I am not trying to play the attacker, I am just confused. You condemned your Sunday School teacher for stating that joy is not circumstantial, yet all the examples you gave of when you have experienced joy came from the good things that were around you. You then go on to say that joy comes from within, but you actually made it sound as though it was coming from external situations. It seems contradicting to me.

  5. Thanks for the comment deeproller. You have good questions and I didn’t take it as an attack at all. One thing that I would like to clarify is that I didn’t criticize my old Sunday School teacher for saying joy was not circumstantial, I criticized her for defining joy as something that comes from God. Not only does that really tell you nothing at all really about joy, but it implies that if you don’t have a god (esp. her particular God) you don’t have joy. On the second point, as I stated the last paragraph of my post, joy comes from a state of mind. That state of mind is one of mindfulness, appreciation, and gratitude. External circumstances have an influence on our joy, making it easier or harder to find joy, but the joy itself has to come from within. Someone who is in terrible circumstances may still find some joy, as long as they can find something to appreciate. Does this answer your question?

  6. Regarding the difference between happiness and joy, I don’t really think there is one. I think joy is a particular type of happiness, not something other.

  7. Yes, that answers my question, and I totally agree with what you say about gratitude and still finding joy in terrible circumstances! But if there is no difference between happiness and joy then how can one have joy/happiness in terrible circumstances while they are rather unhappy? Finding happiness in unhappiness… It just doesn’t make sense to me.

  8. In the moment that someone is miserable, they don’t have joy. Then they take just a brief moment and notice the clear blue sky and fluffy clouds and find a bit of joy. It’s not going to solve their problems and it’s not going to make them permanently happy or joyful. But even in truly awful circumstances if they have stop and appreciate small things like that they can find some.

    Of course, the best way to improve their level of joy might just be to find a way to change their circumstances.

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