Get It Out: Joy vs. Happiness (part 3 of 3)

"Can I look at the map again?" (Brad & Ying, Flickr CC)

Are you happy?

Simple question, right? It’s yes or no. I honestly hope you said “yes”, but I also hope you keep reading anyway. If you answered “no”, I also hope you keep reading, but I’ve gotta warn you: I’m making no promises about getting any happier.

Waitaminit!!” you shout. “The tagline of your blog says ‘Practical tools for making hard times happier.‘ What are you trying to do here?!?”

True enough. And I do think that at least some of what I have to say will help you get happier. But happy? That’s pretty way beyond me, friend.

And besides, stop dodging the question: are you happy?

If you’re answering this honestly, I suspect it’s not really a yes or no question. Instead, the complete answer comes by shooting a question back at me:

What Do You Mean By “Happy”?

The country I live in has the pursuit of it as a foundational element, so it’s obvious important. Strangely enough, though, while we’re expected to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to reach “happiness”, it’s really not defined all that well. Daniel Gilbert, in Stumbling on Happiness, explores the motivations and strategies humans use to try and get to that state…with the predictably hilarious results that establish several entire genres of literature (comedy and tragedy, for starters).

It’s a great book, not in the least because in the end he does in fact give you the key to statistically give you a better chance at happiness than just about anything else you can do. Then he tells you why you, like most people, won’t choose to do it, and you’ll go on living not-quite-happily-ever-after. But at least you’ll understand why.

Personally, I came up with a definition of “happiness” a while back that seemed to work. It has less to do with the quality of the emotion as the duration of it. Because I felt it was important to distinguish it from another commonly associated word: joy.

More Ice Cream!

This is the part where I do not use the writer’s trope of saying “I have two words here. Now, let me use the dictionary as filler material.” You know these words, you’ve used them through your whole life. I’m just asking you to imagine putting a little extra spin on them.

They have a lot in common. Both could be pretty easily distilled into the idea of the state of feeling good. But there came a point when I found that I had lots of things that were making me “happy” – but for some reason, I was still discontent. Upon a little examination, I realized that I was doing things that brought on that state of “feeling good” – but that, when gone, took that state away as well.

Yum! (courtesy of Sociotard, Flickr CC)

Yay! I have ice cream! That makes me happy!

[gobble, slurp, lick the bowl]

No more ice cream! Sad face!

OK, so that’s simplistic, but you get the idea. What I got out of it was the experience of having a yummy taste of ice cream – one of my favorite sensorial delights. But it’s a transient one. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just the way some things are. If I was looking for ice cream to keep me happy, it would probably be rather a difficult task.

That was the problem I was having. I was having a lot of experiences that made me happy – I was not getting anything lasting out of it. What I needed was to figure out how to get something that lasted.

That Which Endures

I have the easiest time explaining to you the concept of joy:

It is about 20 years ago. It is 2am in the morning, on a muggy clear summer night in Madison, WI. Danica, my daughter, has been awake for about 1/2 hour, and I’ve been rocking her back and forth as I stand there, holding the bottle of formula as I feed her. I am exhausted, as most young parents of twins are, and life is not good. I’m underemployed, my marriage is on the rocks, and I honestly don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next week, much less the next 20 years.

But I’m not thinking about that, right then. Because there is a full moon, and it’s coming in through the gauzy curtains in the window, and turning my daughters skin silver bright. Her eyes are wide as she drinks from my hand, staring up into mine. I think I’m unsure about life? How about her, with no understanding or comprehension of anything – except that I am here, holding her tight, feeding her, loving her. Our eyes met then and there and locked in a lifetime’s worth of love.

That was joy. That is something that even when I write it now, after decades of smart-mouthed comebacks and typical teenage lies and “Um, Daddy, you’re not gonna like this, but…” I still get a little teary eyed. This is joy (happens to be her middle name, too, nice how that works, eh?). No matter what happens in the future, no matter what has happened since, that moment of feeling good never goes away.

Get It Out of the Past, Take It Out of the Present

Please don’t take this to mean that I’m saying you shouldn’t go for the happy. Do it! Balloons and cake and Keanu Reeves action movies and Rock Band and that package in the mail that you get by surprise. It’s all good, and you should enjoy the happy moments too.

But you can also examine the moments in your past that you’ve had, the moments that have been joyful, and discover which ones made you happy, and which ones still bring you joy. It can be as subtle as the feeling of a lover’s head resting on your shoulder, or as complex as the time you nailed that black diamond run that you were never insane enough to try again. Try it out: sheet of paper, two columns, Joy and Happiness.

Write down the things that occur to you. I suspect you might be surprised at what you find that has a lasting effect. You might also be surprised at the things that don’t really bring you joy – the things that just made you happy for a moment.

Every once in a while, you might want to try examining whatever is going on and see if it’s making you happy or if it’s bringing you joy. I believe – I really do – that it’s possible to transform one to the other, if you are aware of it.

Not saying it’s easy. Do I ever? But I’m saying it’s worth a shot, to get both happiness and joy out of the lives we lead.

One of my favorite writers, Spider Robinson, coined a phrase: Shared joy is increased, shared pain is lessened. So feel free to share your joy – or even just your favorite ice cream – in the comments!

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