The word joy was always a bit foreign to me. My family and friends just didn’t use this word in conversation growing up. We talked about feeling happy, but nobody said, “I’m so filled with joy right now,” or anything like that.
When I was young, the only time the word joy came up is when we were singing Christmas carols. So, joy brought with it images of little children standing wide-eyed around a Christmas tree surrounded by shiny gifts. Then there was the Three Dog Night song, which conjured up images of hippies and chemically induced bliss. Later there was the Ren & Stimpy song “Happy Happy Joy Joy” which was nothing but crazed, ridiculous silliness. These associations all made joy seem pretty unreal, like a trend, or a commodity, or even a mild form of insanity.
I suspect joy is a much more common word among religious households. Its interesting that when you search for it online, lots of Christian blogs pop up and there is quite a bit of variation in the definitions. Some say it is happiness and some say happiness is another thing altogether. There are associated words like jubilation, exultation, rejoice, and rapture, which are most commonly seen in Catholic hymnals or heard in gospel music. There is the word triumph, which seems like something one might feel after winning a competition. And finally there are synonyms reflecting extreme states like exhilaration, glee, elation, euphoria, bliss, and ecstasy, which tend to be both fleeting and reactionary, attached to some sort of personal storyline or interpretation of events.
I’ve noticed that nowadays, people really seem to relish the word joy. It is associated with pleasure and so, of course, we want more of it in our lives – we strive after it. This is part of why it sometimes feels difficult to trust it. Seeking after joy becomes just another part of the cycle of grasping and clinging that ultimately leads to dissatisfaction, when we’re not mindful.
Learning about appreciative joy was really helpful in coming to see joy as something both beneficial and trustworthy and not just a word that rhymes with toy. Appreciative joy is rejoicing in someone else’s wellbeing. Thinking of it in this way, I can truly sense into it. Yes, I have experienced this feeling many times and it is truly blissful. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether I am witnessing the good fortune of a beloved person or a total stranger in a YouTube video – the internal experience of appreciative joy is powerful and visceral. I now tend to think of joy as a feeling of delight, awe or wonder.
Sunrises and sunsets have also helped me understand joy. Because I accept that what is unfolding before me is a series of ever changing moments of beauty coming from something outside of me, I am able to appreciate each moment without ego, attachment or craving. How wonderful that there is an uncomplicated moment of ecstasy available to us in each and every rising and setting of the sun! The practice of mindfulness opens us to these experiences through greater presence and awareness. Over time, we find ourselves noticing and appreciating more and more, the opportunities for joy hiding in plain sight all around us.
The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it. ― Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life