Happiness vs. Joy

If Lloyd Grossman cared to leaf through my study bookshelf asking who lives in a house like this, he might suppose a sad clown.

The Meaning of Life, The Happiness Hypothesis, Everything Is Going To Be OK and one I can’t find that had a title like How To Mend Your Shit Life (the cause of some marital alarm when I brought it back from a Book Fair)- all are conspicuous by their presence.

Perhaps I thought it better to cut to the chase and work back rather than sully myself with hobby middlemen like needlepoint, only to discover the formula for smiles is yarn-free.

Now, if you’re motivated to buy self-help books you’re predisposed to letting them help you, and along the way there have been nuggets.

Whether Buddhism for Sheep delivering bite-sized wisdom in ponderous aphorisms or affirmations’ practical boosts, the heart of these little tricks and truisms is in the right place.

They’re also gratis, accessible and an alternative to substance abuse.

But they do have a tendency to treat symptoms rather than cause (‘don’t dwell, think positively’) or from case studies to weave manifesto (‘x is a behaviour of happy people.’ ‘Bully for them. If I were a happy person I’d also be x-ing ’till the frickin’ cows came home’).

Given that none of them has ever furnished the cure I’m wondering if How can I be happy? is the right question- not because it’s wrong to strive for a preferable state but is the preferable state preferable?

Maybe happiness as a descriptor is where we’re erring because really it’s about joy.

To split hairs, let’s goose-step through semantics to suckle at the English language teat: happiness is often described in relation to good fortune, joy as being a cause of keen pleasure.

We search for the former when we would be better to source the latter.

There are only 3 basic states: good times, bad times and the times inbetween.

We’re used to thinking that the challenging times are challenging; this isn’t true.

Challenging times are a doddle. Drama is unambivalent; it demands a response. It forces us into an active mode of fight or flight. We might mess up and suffer and wish we were on a party boat going down the Thames instead but essentially we are engaged; we’re dealing with it.

Happiness is the twin in the mirror. It is a state of active engagement- the lining up of events in a fortuitous fashion. It’s the world conforming to pleasing effect, or the cheesy grin of the A-Team’s Hannibal as his van is transformed into an uber-vehicle of emancipation: ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’

Joy is an intervention to the passive. It is a choice- the deliberate poking of a cheerful nose into the space where mind wanders and turns in on itself. It is the decision to notice the shine on the turd, digging as deep as hell when it’s easier, more habitual, less lonely, to bemoan the turdiness of the turd.

Joy doesn’t shine the turd; it is not a smile on sadness. It doesn’t turn around grief with a hopeful slap of the thigh.

It is an effortful meditation; the derivation of beauty from the apparently unbeautiful; a recognition of that which would normally be overlooked; a celebration on nobody’s birthday.

It is an extraction, an extrusion, an enfleurage process that in the place of the fragrant compounds of plants captures the essence of grace. Sustained investigation, applied imagination; these are its demands.

It’s a Broadway Whodunnit to happiness’ Moulin Rouge spectacle, and the reason that there are tetraplegics whose hearts sing, while Victoria Beckham looks like Eeyore in a pencil skirt.

Our capacity for joy is not our high point; it is our mean state. It’s how we cope standing in the queue at Tesco, not how fabulous we feel in high heels.

Happiness is about enjoying the good times- or tautology in a playsuit. Any fool, after all, can ace a party.

It’s a default emotion no more helpful as a measure of equilibrium than is sadness around death- one that is destined to leave us vulnerable and unprepared when the heel breaks or the carriage turns into a pumpkin.

To seek happiness is to ask for reassurance. It’s the ego’s affirmation; the enshrinement of delusion; a relief from the withdrawal of bad times, like a cigarette.

To ask to be happy is to ask, How can I not suffer?

The answer is, When suffering is not required.

If you feel and you love and you engage, you will know ecstasy and you will suffer.

Suffering is not to be feared. Like happy, unhappy takes care of itself.

Neutral is the dupe that needs addressing: the misery in the mundane; the non-special running through your Aquafresh toothpaste twice a day, day after boring day.

Positive thinking, the counting of blessings, gratitude, the half-full glass… how can these hurt? They all skip around in the same food group giving each other high fives and sherbert dib-dabs. They are a story, a nod of acknowledgement that our perception of things amounts to their existence.

But they are still broad brushstrokes compared to the minute attention of joy, a meta-text to the bliss inherent in our world if only we can be open to it.

Our work, we come to understand, is not to seek happiness but rather to cultivate joy- a come-down-free, omnipresent, renewable source that’s unreliant on self-gratification. My God, it’s all lined up for us! It’s practically Happiness!

And what of the joy to be found in crises?

One step at a time, Pleasure Seekers.

ps. Incidentally, it hasn’t escaped my attention that Mumbo has gone up its own jacksy, that it’s not clever, and it certainly isn’t funny, and there are better egg sucking teachers. It’ll pass.



Filed under Mumbo Life, Mumbo Obsessions, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Happiness vs. Joy

  1. Janiebell

    Purpose is found in a crisis – there lies joy.

  2. adele

    I’ve always seen joy as a relatively short lived time of excitement. The accomplishment of a life long goal, the birth of a child, the meeting of a loved one at the airport, a Wimbledon win (?). A fleeting feeling of intense emotion. Reality then steps in. It’s an unsustainable state of mind unless one is on meds or one’s a trifle “touched”. Rather overrated.

    To find joy in everyday things however, is different. It sees beauty in many little things. It can search out the smile of an old man who’s happy talking to his plants on his allotment, catching an early sunrise, the sight of a hummingbird moth sipping nectar from a clover. Now we’re talking more sustainable joy because it is the appreciation of lovely, oft-times overlooked moments. Almost a series of joy “news flashes”.

    Happiness is often only felt on reflection and not at the time .”Happy memories” is the norm rather than “happy in the present”. Although each person has a subjective view of what it feels like to be so.

    Contentment and peace at where one is in life at any given time is, I think, happiness.

    • mumbo

      Very interesting, Beastie, the way we compartmentalise these feelings gives them a sort of structure to find our way around them but the ultimate prize is peace with whatever is.

  3. In my world, we strive, actually strive, to be just ok. As Adele wisely says, joy and happiness are fleeting states that can sometimes lift one out of the pain and misery (also hopefully fleeting) but all of these things have a place and a time and are equally valuable. The point of the journey is the journey…… lalalalalalaaaaaaa

    • mumbo

      Very much agree, Jack, there’s a time and a place for the highs and the lows and the middlings too- all to be fully felt and allowed to be. I also think there is more of the good to be found on the journey if we reach out to meet it half way, and I think it is available to everyone. I also believe in fairies and the power of Dark Rum. flubbalubbalubbalubba.

  4. Wonderful Mumbo! I think you’re getting cleverer. What happened to Postman Pat’s love life?
    I’m not sure that I would call it joy because joy has uber-happy connotations but whatever it is, you’re right in spotting it’s the thing worth giving more attention. Because, as you say, it requires work (really hard mental work not easy-peasy physical work), it’s easier to strive for the material things that make our existence more pleasant instead.
    Surely there’s a danger to this form of ‘joy’ though. If I provide myself with a never ending supply of weed, let’s say, I could then meet all of the unpleasant situations that might follow, poverty, girlie chucking me etc etc, with a contented shrug of the shoulders as I enjoy contemplating Kay Burley’s sneer or the latest Jake Bugg track. My life would get materially worse and I would be further away from fulfilling my ‘goals’ in life (you know those pompous ‘changing the world ones’) but I would be able to handle the set backs by making myself care less.
    I think we need to strive more than joy. Joy is how we stop ourselves being over-obsessed with the cheap ‘happiness’ trinkets but real fulfilment comes from striving towards your purpose.
    Write more, write more! x

    • mumbo

      Yes to that, Moz, I like what you’re saying; the joy’s not an end in itself. It makes sense that if you’re aligned with your purpose you may get more joy and be more open to it.
      Personally, I think if I can open to more joy I’ll have a better chance at finding and enacting my purpose.
      You know, having spent a lifetime flailing around in the fog I’m glad to be even thinking about these things- are you?
      (of course, the weed only helps to numb the unhappiness, rather than being a portal to finding joy; unless we talk of the joy in the weed itself, which is totes valid if you can do it without getting too thirsty like me)

  5. Ah, I see. I was thinking of the ‘joy’ that means you greet all events with a contented smile.
    That’s the one that weed can help me get to.
    But the flip side is that,if, as is likely, my contentedness means that I don’t pursue my purpose purposefully, I just say “oh well, I guess I’m just not ‘that guy’, isn’t that Owen Jones getting repetitive?”, then it will get in the way of my fulfilment.
    All that said, let’s face it, fulfilment is a journey not a destination so how ever I get there is fine as long as I’m going in the right direction. Even if my steps are languid and hazy with smoke.
    …hang on, it’s gone out. x

  6. mumbo

    Ha, yes Moz. When Eckhart Tolle (the Power of Now gnome) discovered the deep pleasure in every moment, he sat on a park bench for 4 years- 4 YEARS!- presumably smiling and not getting a whole lot done. Then he ‘came too’ and started doing his thing to great effect.
    You keep going on that journey- you’re doing a grand job. I’ll keep on your arse about the weed, you just keep on my arse in general please (SUCH a tart): quite the fantastico solution! Xx

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