What is joy?

Lately the wife and I have been thinking and talking about joy. It was in this context I was visually accosted by certain signage at a local big box store. I found myself at odds with the signage which clearly implied that material objects result in joy.

The local Best Buy is selling joy

Our brief and unfinished discussions have largely attempted to define the idea of joy, moving from there to examine how it might be achieved. The idea of joy to us is more deeply seated than happiness. Happiness is fleeting and unreliable. Joy is something that has to be worked at, but once attained it persists. Other emotions may step in front of it during life — grief at the death of a friend, worry at the loss of a job, happiness while watching the sun set — but joy will remain and resurface, as well as provide a foundation for the rest of a person’s outlook on life.

Before beginning this little entry I did some research on what other people thought of joy. I was surprised to see how closely dictionaries (and Wikipedia) aligned both joy and happiness. They call joy an emotion, which doesn’t make sense to me. So far as I can tell, joy is a choice that becomes part of a person’s worldview through consistent application. It is not an emotion. (Or, maybe joy is an emotion, but there is something else that we’re reaching for and don’t have a better word for. So we call it “joy.”)

In this research I did find a few less-than-academic articles trying to make the distinction between the two clearer, but they fall flat. The best bit I found supporting our own sentiment was a G.K. Chesterton quote:

Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

Keyword “labour.”

Electronic toys do not result in joy, they just don’t. A lot of other things can they cause — a failure in interpersonal communication, obesity, debt — which might include happiness, a temporary happiness. A new iPhone will undoubtedly come out next year. The successor to Blu-Ray is certainly being developed already, just as Blu-Ray takes off. Happiness from such things will be fleeting.

To be fair, some of the things such big box retailers purvey may facilitate joy. A new stove could facilitate the crafting of new edible family traditions around the holidays, or all year round. A new CD — given music’s enigmatic ability to get into our heads — could also lend itself to joy. However, I still don’t like this Christmas marketing campaign or its implications. At best it plays on people’s misunderstanding of joy (based on our observations of the word’s connotations). At worst it suggests a lackluster definition of the idea of joy without suggesting a semantic replacement for a deeper happiness, a contentment.

Adding: After a little more digging, this time into the concordance, I found the Greek word Chara (pronounced khar-ah’) which is translated as “joy.” It’s defined as “cheerfulness, i.e. calm delight.” I like the word calm there, although I’m not sure how it contributes to my thoughts above.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

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