I wrote an earlier post on the relationship between happiness and virtue and at the risk of repeating myself I am going to have another go. In both Greek and Christian tradition there is also a distinction made between happiness and joy. As I mentioned in the earlier post, happiness is not understood to be an event or an emotion but relates to a life well lived – to the flourishing of the whole of a life.
One way to think about this is to go through a little thought experiment (I read about this somewhere but cannot remember the source – my apologies). Imagine yourself walking past a drug addict in the street who has recently had a shot of heroin. He has a smile on his face and is clearly “happy”, in the euphoric sense to which most of us think about that term. Yet with good reason, we are able to judge that this person is not living a happy life. They are not flourishing and unless things change are not likely to have a life of which it can be said, “there goes a happy man.”
Joy is also different to euphoria. They are both emotional and they are both episodic – they come and go with the circumstances of life. Joy, however, is understood as the celebration of good and beautiful experiences of life while euphoria is simply an emotion that may go with joy but that may also be associated with the injection of heroin. We may also experience euphoria in response to evil, but this is not the experience of joy but, rather, an expression of our brokenness – of the evil that is within us. Some people “enjoy” torturing animals, but this seemingly pleasant emotion is something other than joy – at least as that term has been traditionally understood.
So, in comparison to happiness, joy is much more obviously connected to events and the emotions associated with those events. We contrast joy with grief. We can attend a funeral and say of a widow, “she lived a happy life with her husband”, and we can recognise that her grief does not destroy that happiness, even if it colours it. Joys and griefs are the experience of every life. The person who flourishes differs from the person who does not, largely in the meaning that they are able to make of their life through their experiences of joy and grief. This meaning enables them to transcend their grief. This leaves writers like Thomas Aquinas to assert that, ultimately, happiness does not relate to the circumstances of life but, rather, to the manner in which we deal respond to those circumstances.
If I’m reading him correctly, St Paul takes all of this a little further. He talks about joy as a fruit of the spirit. Now it may be that he is using the term joy as others are using happiness, as something that supersedes our circumstances. But maybe he is also suggesting that we can know something of the emotion of joy even in the midst of grief by the experience of the spirit? (Help me out here Bible scholars!)
Now, I would like to believe St Paul and Aquinas are right – I know that I should believe that they are! But, as I said previously, I do wonder whether all of this is wishful thinking. In reality there seems to be a fair bit of luck connected to happiness, even if this is understood in terms of the story of a flourishing life. It seems to me that while the person with adequate money and good health may or may not be happy, they have a better chance of it than does the person without either. Perhaps, then, all we can do is hope that happiness supersedes circumstances. And for that, I guess, I can pray with St Paul for the gift of the spirit – the deposit of the future – the gift that promises that flourishing is possible.
Anyway, I think I’m going to do one more post on happiness (if I’m boring you just don’t read it!). It will be a critique of Christian tradition, whose wowserism has undermined much of the insight in their understanding of happiness. But that for another time.