My dog is “joy on four paws.”
My Joyful Experience
Late on a recent autumn afternoon, I was in the car running errands. As I approached the neighborhood middle school I saw a group of girls on the sidewalk, all wearing soccer uniforms. Even from a distance, I could see that they were excited; they were jumping and dancing around, big smiles on their faces. I could hear their shouts and laughter as I approached. They were also waving at every passing care. As I passed them I waved back and honked the car horn.
The middle school sits on a corner where traffic signals control the intersection. As I waited for the traffic light to change, I saw three girls break off from the group and run toward my car. I lowered the window and shouted to them, “Sid you win your game?”
“Yes,” they yelled back, which led to another bout of jumping, dancing and laughter.
“Girls rule and you rock,” I replied, prompting high fives and more cheers.
The traffic signal changed to green; the driver behind me tapped his horn; and I had to drive on.
I am so thankful to these young soccer players for sharing their joy with me. It made my day. Not only is joy contagious, it expands when you share it. Now, every time I pass the middle school I think of those wonderful joyful girls and I smile.
The Nature of Joy
The girls were certainly happy. but they were also full of joy. Happiness is a personal experience but joy is a shared experience. They could not have won the game if everyone on the team didn’t do their best. It was the shared experience of working together to win the game that turned a happy experience into a joyful one.
According to George E. Vaillant, M.D., psychiatrist and author of the book Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith (2008), happiness is giggling at a Tom and Jerry cartoon, Joy is laughing from the gut, and we often weep with joy. Happiness displaces pain. Joy encompasses pain.
Although best known for his controversial book On the Origin of Species, naturalist Charles Darwin published several other books, including The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). In this book, he identified human emotions, both positive and negative, and described how people express these emotions. He identified these physical indicators of joy:
- Muscle trembling
- Purposeless moving
- Clapping hands
- Jumping about
- Stamping feet
- Muscles around the eyes contracting
- Upper lip raising
In other words, exactly the movements and facial expressions of the middle school girls.
Nearly 100 years later, University of California, Berkeley psychology professor Paul Ekman validated Darwin’s findings and showed that these and other physical signs of emotion are universal. Regardless of people’s national or racial origins or where in the world they live, they display same physical symptoms of joy.
Have you ever listened carefully or read the lyrics of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – Ode to Joy. The first three lines are sung as a solo by a baritone:
Oh friends, not these tones!
Let us raise our voices in more
Pleasing and more joyful sounds!
The words were originally written by the German poet, Fredrick von Schiller; but, it took Beethoven’s musical genius to help us “get it” in the truest sense of the words. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was a connection between Schiller, Beethoven and, to this day, every audience that hears it. Notice that throughout the poem, Schiller used plural nouns like we and us and not singular nouns like I or me. In other words, joy is about being connected to one another.
Summary of Happiness and Joy
- Is temporary
- Is self-centered (such as, success)
- Resides in the limbic system of the brain, which controls functions like emotion, behavior, motivation and long-term memory
- Is eating cookies
- Comes from connections with others (such as, tears of joy over the rescue of a lost child)
- Resides in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which is involved in complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making, and social behavior
- Is sharing cookies with a friend.
Joy is increased by spreading it to others. ~ Robert Murray McCheyne
What will you do this week to spread joy to others?
 Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R., Friesen, W.V., “Pan Cultural Elements of Facial Display of Emotion”, Science, New Series, Vol 164, 3875, April 4, 1969, 86 –88.