Experimenting with joy
Matthew Williams | Thursday, February 16, 2017
Of all the existential questions to get tossed around on Friday nights or over coffee on Saturday mornings, my all-time favorites are those considering the point of human life. They usually begin as raw why questions about our existence, which get mixed into questions of how to live a “meaningful” life, before finally rising into half-baked opinions about the pursuit of pleasure, power and a plethora of other emotions and achievements.
Recently, I have been trying a different approach to this process. Working backwards, I assume “to maximize joy” as my hypothesis for the worthiest pursuit in life, and then I test this hypothesis by experimenting with joy so to speak.
Before beginning these experiments, however, I had to first figure out what exactly this intangible concept of “joy” truly was, where this state, which seemed to transcend the realm of feelings like happiness and suffering, came from, and why everyone from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Pixar producers at Disney Land seemed to believe that it was the most important part of life.
This sounds like a simple task, but for a three-letter word that entered most of our vocabularies in grade school, joy turned out to be a surprisingly elusive concept to catch. I quickly discovered that it couldn’t be activated from a sample set of emotions and actions, such as “if chocolate, then joy,” but rather, inducing the experience of joy relied upon our completely adopting a certain state of mind. Thus, while happiness could be clearly traced to a great piece of cake or a first kiss, and suffering directly derived from a stomach ache or bad break-up, joy was not so simply summoned.
I think this is because joy is of a different degree than happy and sad, and therefore is not subject to the same principles of cause and effect that these more temporary emotional reactions are. This would explain why it’s possible to find joy amongst great suffering; and why it’s easy to produce happiness when one possesses joy alone.
To put this another way, because joy is a state of mind something that exists independent from external circumstances, and because a foundation of joy can provide a subsistent supply of happiness, there’s never a reason why you can’t choose to be the happiest person in the room.
What’s more, joy has a self-catalytic effect, wherein once you detect the trace of joy, it naturally leads you to discover even more, and the more joy you find, the more you recognize has been hidden all around you, disguised under the veil of daily distractions, just waiting to be uncovered. I know this to be true, because I been repeatedly revealed this effect through my own experiments with joy.
Lately, when walking to class, or sitting down to dinner, I have begun to feel the infectious powers of joy. It comes over me, at first, like an itch, but then quickly evolves into something as expressive as a sneeze. The result is that things as small as a smile from a stranger, a glance at the dome, or a meager memory can lead me to break into laughter for no reason aside from the overwhelming experience of joy.
What’s even more remarkable than this, however, is the way that joy manages to spread itself. In Buddhism, there’s a concept called “mudita,” which means that you receive joy simply from witnessing other people experience it. Thus, my joyous laughing fits are a transmittable phenomenon, and the method of doing so is as simple as being near someone.
With this in mind, it should follow that through meeting one of these moments face-to-face, a person would respond with wonder whilst they receive the seedling of a great joy. But this is not always the case, and often we greet joy instead with distrust, or even worse, disgust. We call someone who sits alone with a smile on their face “strange,” or someone who walks and laughs to his or herself “weird.” Where, when and how did this unwelcome social norm weed its way into the garden of western culture?
My initial diagnosis, for what it’s worth, would be that this invasive custom lies rooted partially in the West’s indulgence in capitalism, and partially in the rights that members of this modern era now inherit with birth.
On the first, I would argue that as capitalism is driven by competition, competition is driven by comparison, and as Theodore Roosevelt so elegantly put it, “comparison is the thief of joy.” As members of the Notre Dame microcosm of America’s highly capitalist society, we are constantly comparing ourselves to each other in order to retain a competitive edge; a process which is far more conducive of the German phenomena “schadenfreude,” in which one gains pleasure from the misfortune of others, than it is of the Eastern ideal “mudita.”
On the second, I would argue that when something, like education, per say, is viewed as a right owed to us by society, as opposed to an opportunity to be earned, it becomes far easier to complain about its non-ideal aspects, and much more difficult to appreciate its perfectly adequate ones. This becomes a problem, because as joy resides in an internal state of mind, cultivating it requires that we consciously choose to focus on the good parts of circumstance; something we are becoming less adept to do.
In closing, while my experimentation with joy is still in its infancy, I hope to offer these ideas as some food for thought — some starter, so to speak, for crafting a satisfactory solution to the aforementioned existential recipes.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.