No one expects to be happy through suffering hardship and troubles. But of themselves, an easy life, good health and fitness, do not mean we are necessarily joyful. Joy is surely more than just being born with a sunny disposition. More than just experiencing the joy of one’s sports team scoring a goal, or feeling a sense of delight in one’s car. What then does bring joy to our lives?
Joy from worldly pleasure?
You might place a bet on the lottery hoping for great wealth. However, study after study by psychologists show no correlation between wealth and happiness. This is so except in cases of poverty when extra income does relieve suffering and bring security.
If you have all the possessions you ever dreamed of, yet another gizmo, smart car, foreign holiday or more nice clothes are not going to make you full of joy.
Or perhaps your aspirations are modest. But of themselves, food, drink, rest, comfort, and sexual pleasure can only provide temporary happiness. We soon get satiated. The thought of that extra cream bun is enough to make you feel sick.
Does fame make us happy? I’m not famous so I don’t know. But some celebrities seem to end up either shunning the limelight or just discontentedly craving more and more attention.
Some people want to get their own way. But does this bring happiness? Tyrants for example are always watching their backs for those who oppose them and never seem content.
Psychologist Oliver James has pointed out in his book Affluenza that it’s a mistake to attach one’s sense of worth and well-being to something transient, like one’s looks, one’s job, money or fame, because these things may not last for ever. In other words happiness is not something one can attain for oneself but arises as a consequence of how one spends one’s time and one’s outlook on life.
“Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
Self esteem and confidence
Happiness in life may depend on having a sense of personal autonomy so we act in accordance with inner standards and preferences, pursuing goals, and resisting social pressures. Alongside this is having the self-acceptance needed to understand and appreciate one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses.
Psychological studies also show fewer symptoms of depression and higher self-esteem come from having the knowledge and skills necessary for managing the demands and responsibilities of daily life. And having the social skills necessary for developing warm, trusting, satisfying relationships, that involve empathy and concern for others.
Also well-being seems to be associated with being open to new experiences, and having a willing attitude towards learning and self-improvement, as well as seeking challenges that broaden one’s horizons.
But does all this sense of well-being amount to inner joyfulness?
A sense of self-transcendence
Something beyond yourself is perceived if you have a mystical experience; one that just cannot be put into words. Perhaps involving awe and wonder at the oneness and beauty of the universe. This might involve feeling apart from time and space. A state of inner illumination, and feeling in touch with an unfathomable ultimate reality. But the happy sense of connection with transcendence eventually passes. Consequently, we can ask whether this inner awakening amounts to joy?
Some people have ecstatic experiences as part of emotionally charged atmosphere of a shared religious culture tradition. The excitement is generated by increasing stimulation of dance and music and by appealing to common fears, hopes, or desires. The whirling dervishes intone the divine name and there is circular dancing, whirling and leaping. The hubbub has an air of savagery and animality about it. But is ecstatic social experience really the same as a having private lasting joy?
Generosity of spirit
The book City of Joy by Dominique Lapierre is an amazing true story about the Anand Nagar slum in Calcutta in the 1970’s. Based on thorough research, including two hundred interviews in various languages, it has a fascinating authentic ring.
The reader discovers the plight of peasants who came from famine-struck rural areas in India. Death from malnutrition was a very real possibility. They slept on the city streets and, if they were lucky, worked very long hours in appalling conditions to scrape together survival rations. It is a tough book to read but it demands the reader’s attention. Its power comes from the vivid detailed non-stop descriptions of the terrible hardship yet compassion of the inhabitants. Despite their suffering they had a lack of self-orientation in their attitude. There are amazing accounts of a generosity of spirit of those, themselves, in dire need.
“No one has a right to consume happiness without producing it.” (Helen Keller)
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” (Rabindranath Tagore)
Mother Teresa’s nuns offer dramatic examples of royal giving and the joy it produces. Their lifestyle is austere. They leave the comforts of home and live like the poorest of the poor people they serve. At their central house in Culcutta they live three or four to a room. They only personally possess two dresses and a bucket for washing. The same food is eaten as the poor. Despite the suffocating Indian heat they have no air conditioning. They rise before dawn and spend their days working in the slums.
“Joy is prayer; joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” (Mother Teresa)
A TV interviewer said “The thing I notice about you and the hundred’s of sisters who now form your team is that you look so happy. Is it a put-on?
‘Oh no,’ she replied, ‘not at all. Nothing makes you happier than when you really reach out in mercy to someone who is badly hurt’.
‘I swear,’ wrote the interviewer afterwards, ‘that I have never experienced so sharp a sense of joy.’
The deepest joy apparently comes from selfless concern for others.
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems