Joy, Old Crow Hill, 27 December, afternoon
Every time I hear about a new German word for some extremely niche but universal emotion, I'm saddened anew at how poor the English language is at reaching inside the human soul. Cobbled together from about 400 different historical languages, English is a utilitarian kludge of a language, whose near universal adoption was based mostly on imperial power than its usefulness.
This is all to say that while contentment, happiness, and joy are used mostly synonymously, I consider them very different emotions. Contentment is the most prosaic of the three. It can be easy to find contentment; it's there in the completed birdhouse you made, in a clean sink, in a perfect parallel parking job. If you want it, contentment can be created from thin air most anytime of the day. It's a great way to get through the day, to create a little spark even on the dreariest day.
Happiness is different though. It requires work, time, buy-in. It's there in winning the big rivalry game, in completing your home remodel, in buying a new car, or in finally getting that promotion. Happiness can be intense, dizzying. It can feel so real. After all it took real effort to achieve, whether time, money, or emotional investment. Yet happiness isn't real. It's fleeting, ephemeral like smoke on the wind. Sometimes, it can go just as quickly as it came, and when it does it leaves your interior self very cold. There's a reason why so many people find themselves in a happiness loop, chasing that next high until they hit the proverbial wall.
What happiness lacks is connection, a spiritual tether to something bigger than ego. That's the domain of joy, an emotion that is the perfection of both contentment and happiness. It is the apotheosis of positive emotions, creating both the rush of happiness and the satisfaction of contentment, and marrying them to a brief glimpse of the entirety of the human experience. It is, in short, a spiritual experience, an alchemical reaction that leaves you changed afterward.
Like contentment, joy can come on suddenly, from anywhere. Even the most ordinary moments can bring a rush of joy. It's in the burst of tears at a wedding, in the first cry of your newborn child, seeing your family after a long trip away. And like happiness, joy can come only from hard work and commitment. A wedding itself does not bring joy because there is no historical or emotional connection to the ritual. It requires time, effort, and long standing to work its magic.
That is what makes joy the most paradoxical of the three, because joy can only come out of time itself. You can only feel joy at the wedding of a friend if you've truly known that person, and to know them means knowing it all, feeling it all. Joy, in essence, can not be created without pain, sadness, and grief, the seasonings that bring forth its full flavor. The necessary ingredients of joy are heartbreak, tears, anguish, struggle, and doubt, and only when they've all been brought together can the whole picture be seen.
And it's the seeing that is joy. You are not alone. You're part of a story that goes back 200k years, that's grown through the lives of 117 billion people, and will continue on long after your time here is done. Joy is seeing all that, and realizing it's perfect, and you get to be part of that perfection.
In fact, you already are.