Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happiness vs Joy

The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.    -Victor Frankl

There is a fundamental difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is transitory and dependent on what is happening at a given moment while joy is eternal and can flow through all experiences.  For example, I will be very happy if I win a new car in a contest and I will be very unhappy if someone vandalizes it.  I will be happy if someone compliments me and unhappy if someone criticizes me.  This is normal.  Reacting appropriately to various situations is a sign of a healthy psyche.  I should be sad when someone important leaves my life.  I should be anxious if someone is threatening me, etc. 

But these are just surface level feelings.  We also have deeper emotions that wind their way through all of our experiences.  Joy, despair, and anger are examples.  Our personalities are generally defined by the particular, deep emotion that is most steady and consistent over time.  If it is joy then we will have a cheerful disposition.  If it is despair then we will be depressed.  If it is anger then we will attack any situation that makes us uncomfortable with an emotional hammer.

Let’s take the vandalized car as an example.  A joyful person will put the experience into a broader context and say something like, “At least nobody was hurt.”  A depressed person will see this as just one more example of how nothing works out for him and that he does not deserve anything nice.  An angry person will look for someone to blame and take his anger out on whoever is available – whether that person had anything to do with the event or not.

Clearly, joy is the most desirable and adaptive choice – but how do we get it?

Joy results from the simple recognition that we have a place, purpose, and role to play in this world.  It occurs when we realize that, no matter where we find ourselves, we are where we need to be.  We may not be in good or desirable situations – they may even be dangerous and demand resolute action – but we are there because they somehow fit into the context of purposeful lives.  Joy is produced when we understand that we are always part of something larger than ourselves and that every person and situation we encounter helps us to grow and provides us with opportunities to make the world just a little bit better.

Obviously, for this to work we must open ourselves up to the possibility that there is a benevolent force behind this world that desires goodness and love - thinking that we are part of something bigger than ourselves does not necessarily make conspiracy theorists joyful.  Connecting to the eternal force animating the world rather than to external constructs will engender feelings of true joy because every situation can then be viewed in a positive light.  Rather than seeing ourselves as pawns in some malevolent game, we now see ourselves as partners in creation.

We are not tossed about emotionally by the events of our days when joy is the foundation of our lives.  Rather, we capture the state of being so valued by the mystics called equanimity.  This allows us to accept every situation – good and bad – as necessary to our work.  It frees us from worry and gives us the strength to distill goodness and light from every situation.

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