Joy vs. Happiness

by 11:28 PM 0 comments
There was a really great piece on the Atlantic website last year about happiness. It basically relates the work of Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who wrote prolifically about the meaning of life. Frankl's idea is that we should seek fulfillment rather than happiness. A fulfilling life means giving to the community around us, whereas a happy life is spent having positive feelings. Happiness is base; many animals can be happy. Only people can be fulfilled, so to maximize our human potential, we should work towards fulfillment.

There's a passage in a Milan Kundera book, I can't remember which, where he talks about JFK and his laughing smile. Kundera writes that laughter is the moment when your brain turns off, and that JFK looks so friendly in these pictures because he's showing himself to be a grinning idiot, totally non-threatening. Happiness and laughter go in tandem, and these Eastern Europeans seem to be pretty skeptical of what we would call our perpetual 'positive attitudes.'

The Frankl article changed my perspective on happiness pretty dramatically. As Americans, we have a right to the pursuit of happiness, if not happiness itself. It seems like most of us are constantly toiling away towards this elusive goal, the thing that everyone wants for themselves and their children. So, I often wondered, if I'm not happy, what's the point? I'm easily content, but rarely ear-to-ear grinning and beaming at everyone I meet. If that's the purpose of life, am I doing this entirely wrong? Further, should people who are permanently unhappy because of chronic pain or illness just kill themselves, since they have no realistic chance at long-term happiness?

I had never actually examined my feelings closely enough to realize that these were the questions that I wanted to ask, but once I found an answer, the questions fell into place. The answer is no, it's not wrong to be unhappy most of the time. My life, I decided, should be primarily devoted to doing my part to uphold the social contract. I've taken, and continue to take, so much from society. I want to try to give something back. This can be my goal in life; something I can reasonably aim for and that shouldn't elude me as 'being happy' does.

Anyway, I can't force happiness, nor do I want to. It will come and go, and I refuse to re-order my life around it's pursuit.

When I think about joy, I imagine something more meaningful than happiness. If happiness is a candy bar by the cash register, joy is a meal shared with family. Happiness is a trashy reality show on VH1, and joy is a movie in a theatre that the audience claps for at the end.

Joy is a departure from the ordinary. Joy is exciting. Happiness is a bit dull, but joy is worth searching for.

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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