The Difference Between Happiness and Joy

David Brooks

(Staying vulnerable in an age of cruelty.)
On Monday I was honored to speak to the graduating students at Arizona State University. It was an intimidating occasion. A.S.U. is the most innovative university in the world. Plus, there were 35,000 people in the football stadium.
Anybody speaking to college students these days is aware of how hard it is to be a young adult today, with rising rates of depression, other mental health issues, even suicide.
So while these talks are usually occasions to talk about professional life, my goal was to get them thinking about the future of their emotional lives, which is really going to be at the center of everything.
There are two kinds of emotion present at any graduation ceremony. For the graduating students there is happiness. They’ve achieved something. They’ve worked hard and are moving closer to their goals.
There is a different emotion up in the stands among the families and friends. That emotion is joy. They are not thinking about themselves. Their delight is seeing the glow on the graduate’s face, the laughter in her voice, the progress of his journey, the blooming of a whole person.
Happiness usually involves a victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another. Joy comes after years of changing diapers, driving to practice, worrying at night, dancing in the kitchen, playing in the yard and just sitting quietly together watching TV. Joy is the present that life gives you as you give away your gifts.
The core point is that happiness is good, but joy is better. It’s smart to enjoy happiness, but it’s smarter still to put yourself in situations where you might experience joy.
People receive joy after they have over-invested in their friendships. The thing the wisest people say about friendship is this: Lovers stand face to face staring into each other’s eyes. But friends stand side by side, staring at the things they both care about. Friendship is about doing things together. So people build their friendships by organizing activities that are repeated weekly, monthly or annually: picnics, fantasy leagues, book clubs, etc.
A friend of mine organized a giving circle when he graduated. He and his friends put money into a common pot every year, and every year they gather to decide what cause they will give the money to. The philanthropy is nice, but it’s really just a pretext to get them together each year, so they can live life shoulder to shoulder.
They say that love is blind, but the affection friends have for each other is the opposite of blind. It is ferociously attentive. You are vulnerable, and your friend holds your vulnerability. He pauses, and you wait for him. You err, and she forgives.
“You will be loved,” the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese wrote, “the day when you will be able to show your weakness without the other person using it to assert his strength.”
Transparency is the fuel of friendship. We live in an age of social media. It’s very easy to create false personas and live life as a performance.
We live in a cruel time, when people attack you when they see a hint of vulnerability. So, it’s extra important to stick with emotional honesty even after people take advantage of your vulnerability to inflict pain. Vulnerability is the only means we have to build relationships, and relationships are the only means we have to experience joy.
My friend Catherine Bly Cox observed that when her first daughter was born she realized she loved her more than evolution required. I love that phrase because it speaks to what is distinctly human, our complex and infinite caring for one another.
There are some things we do because biology demands it. There are some things we do to pay the rent. But material drives don’t explain the magic of our friendships and the way our soul sings when we watch loved ones glow.
Sometimes when you’re out with your friends, you taste a kind of effervescent joy. Several years ago, the writer Zadie Smith was dancing at a club with her friends when a song from A Tribe Called Quest came on. At that point, she wrote, “A rail-thin man with enormous eyes reached across a sea of bodies for my hand. He kept asking me the same thing over and over: You feeling it? I was. My ridiculous heels were killing me, I was terrified I might die, yet I felt simultaneously overwhelmed with delight that ‘Can I Kick It?’ should happen to be playing at this precise moment in the history of the world, and was now morphing into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I took the man’s hand. The top of my head flew away. We danced and danced. We gave ourselves up to joy.”
When you have moments like that you realize there is magic in the world. You can’t create the magic intentionally, but when you are living at that deep affectionate level, it sometimes just combusts within you. A blaze of joy.
[David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and the forthcoming book, “The Second Mountain.” @nytdavidbrooks]

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