The State of Joy
The State of Joy

The State of Joy

What if we tried to assess the health of society, not merely in terms of GDP or a consumer confidence index, but in terms of joy?
October 22 nd 2015

Our metrics for assessing the health of a society are stunted and flat. Even our newfound, widespread concern with “human flourishing” still tends to quantify measures that can hide debilitating despair. Indeed, we enjoy remarkable abundance yet suffer from a joyless boredom that stymies social energy and short-circuits communal endeavor. We need another lens.

What if we tried to assess the health of society, not merely in terms of GDP or a consumer confidence index, but in terms of joy?

If peace and joy are gifts, then in a re-made world in which everything is a matter of our accomplishment, joy and peace are precluded.

Experiencing Joy

But what is “joy”? Before assessing the “state of joy” in late modern, market-driven societies, let me try to get a handle on what I’m after. In preparing to write this essay, I undertook my own first-person introspection, trying to plumb the features of joy in some of my own experiences—which are in no way normative, just close at hand.

Some moments of joy were remarkable experiences that lifted me out of my everyday concerns. For example, I recall a stunning day with my family snorkeling among manatees in Silver Springs, Florida. Indeed, a photo from that day sits above me at my desk as I write this, all six of us beaming, in the crystal-clear water of a hidden lagoon surrounded by rainforest. It is not only unforgettable in hindsight; we all had a sense of something special in the happening.

Or I can recall a moment a couple of summers ago on a small lake in northern Michigan in which I had an experience of what I can only call “joy” that was almost epiphanic, but in a mode of quiet realization. I was floating on the lake in a kayak with my family in view: some resting on the dock, a couple of the kids on paddleboards (one with our little dog Daisy calmly perched on the prow). We were unhooked from our phones and Wi-Fi and the weight of “connection”; everyone was present to the moment and to one another; the lake was calm and quiet; and I was overwhelmed by a sense of rest and reassurance.

These moments of joy attend experiences of disembedding that have a focusing power, enabling us to see a more enduring reality.

But joy does not necessarily require such extraordinary measures. I can think of realizations of joy very much embedded in the everyday: on afternoons where my wife and I see all four of our (pretty much grown) children truly enjoying one another as friends, we are recipients of a deep sense that “all is right with the world”—or, more specifically, all is right with our world in such moments—and that our hopes and dreams are being realized (without any illusions about how overwhelmingly subjective such a state of joy is). No matter our account of joy, it seems that the reality of joy is not simply precluded by the reality of evil.

So as not to limit the field of concern only to my personal experience, consider also the emergence of joy in someone like Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century mathematician, philosopher, and untimely born Augustinian. In particular I have in mind that searing testimonial document known as “The Memorial,” Pascal’s hurried recounting of a mystical experience that was so dear to him he had the paper sown into his jacket so as to always have it near his heart. I cite only selectively, beginning with the opening testimony:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, joy, certainty, emotion, sight, joy
God of Jesus Christ.
Deum meum et Deum vestrum. . . .

He goes on to simply recite “Joy, Joy, Joy and tears of joy,” and concludes:

Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy for one day’s tribulation on earth.

Joy is found in submission? It might turn out we have a lot to learn about joy.

The Conditions of Joy

Are there features that my experiences of joy share with Pascal’s mystical experience? Can we see some of the parameters of joy emerging from these cases? I see at least two.

First, it seems to me that, while joy can by crystallized into discrete “experiences”—that is, joy can have episodic “highlights” that bring it to the surface of realization—nonetheless such experiences of joy actually relate to a more baseline, steady-state posture of receptivity, bound up with gratitude, as the condition of possibility for such epiphanic moments. Such “moments” of joy tend to be revelations and recognitions of the giftedness of one’s world—which, in those moments, is recognized to be a reality even during the routine and everyday moments when one isn’t necessarily aware of it . Perhaps we could say that joy is intimately linked to a sense of blessing, a sense of grace.

Second, it seems that such joy is relational: not only is it shared with others, and occasioned by relationships, but it also wells up from a sense of having received a gift from someone (Someone?). In a relational context, joy emerges from a sense of resting on someone who gives; in such a context, having received—being a recipient—is not experienced as a debt but as the basis for joy. So the stance of receptivity that seems integral to joy points to another—a giver or givers (or Giver). Perhaps one could say that joy is a mode of enjoying gratitude. That is, joy is the enjoyment of being a recipient, where receiving a gift fosters not resentment at being indebted but an open welcome of such gift-ing. It presupposes recognition of one’s “indebtedness” as a good feature of a blessed creaturely life. (One wonders, then, if only those creatures who can be resentful can also be joyful.)

In this way, joy seems inextricably linked to both gratitude and contentment as the baseline from which joyous revelations/epiphanies emerge. Indeed, joy might be almost synonymous with peace, a kind of attendant effect without which it’s hard to imagine joy being present, and vice versa.

Joy Blocks?

If joy is a receptive, relational experience or attitude in which I enjoy the state of being gift-ed (and hence “indebted,” in a way), then we might also be able to consider those aspects of late modern, market-driven societies that “block” or inhibit joy.

Autonomy, Independence, and Disenchantment

For example, if something like my account is correct, then ardent assertions of autonomy and independence would short-circuit joy precisely because such notions of autonomy and independence refuse the richly relational context required for joy and, more fundamentally, deny the indebtedness (giftedness) of creaturely dependence. Such micro or individual senses of autonomy and independence often assume wider macro-assertions of independence embedded in cosmologies that deny any sort of metaphysical dependence on a beyond, an Other, a Someone, a Giver. If, as Charles Taylor has suggested, modern cosmologies have reconfigured our milieu as an “immanent frame,” then being ensconced in immanence already removes some of the conditions of joy—a fundamental sense of having been blessed, of having received a gift from an Other. Often this scenario is complicated by a reconfiguring of the Earth or the Cosmos itself as a kind of Giver (I’m thinking of the poetry of Gary Snyder)—so that, in Taylor’s terms, one gets some of the existential capital of a transcendent Creator without really positing something or Someone beyond creation. Or similarly, one can extol the nation-state as the great Provider and Blesser of our existence. Just watch any NFL game in the United States on Thanksgiving day and note to whom (or what) they are giving thanks: it is usually the power of the nation-state as symbolized by the presence of the military.

In this sense, disenchantment is a serious hindrance to the experience of joy. A cosmological refusal of a state of dependence might be refusing one of the very conditions of joy. If peace and joy are gifts, then in a remade world in which everything is a matter of our accomplishment, joy and peace are precluded.

There is no joy to be found in self-assertion, and joy will elude a society bent on self-assertion.

An Augustinian take on culture sees autonomy, independence, and disenchantment as individual, cosmological, and even societal expressions of pride. Here we might note an interesting connection attested to by Pascal, who found joy in submission (yea, “total submission”). This is a theme that recurs throughout the Pensées. The anxious soul, for Pascal—which is the self who lacks true self-knowledge—is one who refuses to submit: “Be aware then, proud men,” he cautions, “what a paradox you are to yourselves. Humble yourself, powerless reason! Be silent, foolish nature! Learn that humanity infinitely transcends humanity and hear from your Master your true condition of which you are unaware” (§164). There is no joy to be found in self-assertion, and joy will elude a society bent on self-assertion.

Boredom, Angst, and Restlessness

If joy and peace are intertwined, then the absence of joy is not necessarily or only sadness, nor merely apathy; the joyless society is restive. The iconic line from the opening of Augustine’s Confessions comes to mind: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The analysis here—and the narrative that follows—suggests that Augustine’s pursuit of “rest” is a pursuit of peace. The disordered soul is not simply unhappy, but restless, angsty, unsettled, frenetically pursuing rest from things that can never give it (“looking for love in all the wrong places,” as Johnny Lee once crooned).

Again, this restlessness seems bound up with a more fundamental posture: in Augustine’s terms, it is a matter of (wrongly) expecting aspects of the creation to return the love that can only be given by the Creator. Nothing within the immanent frame can adequately sustain such dependence.

Pascal, a later Augustinian, gives us further insight here: It is precisely our disappointments and failure to satisfy this craving for peace/happiness/Eudaimonia that compels us to distract ourselves from the fact that we lack peace.

In spite of these wretchednesses he [the human person] wants to be happy, he only wants to be happy, and cannot not want to be happy. But how will he set about it? The only way would be to become immortal. But he cannot, so has decided to stop himself from thinking about it. (Pensées §166)

In other words, our diversions and distractions are not attempts to satisfy this baseline longing, which requires owning up to our dependence and then gladly receiving a gift; the distractions are our way of trying to forget that they can’t. It’s “why we prefer the hunt to the kill” (§168).

For such a frantic, frenetic self—expanded in late modernity to a frantic, frenetic society—the instinct to seek repose and quiet quickly slides into the experience of boredom in which the world returns nothing, “all is vanity,” and we are compelled back to distraction in order to escape the nihil of a world that bores us.

The novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace provides a lot of insight into how these aspects of distraction, boredom, and a return to distraction now suffuse late modern culture, particularly in its “entertainments.” That Wallace did so before the ubiquity of the Internet only deepens his insight. As he commented to journalist David Lipsky,

We’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. And there’s some kinds of escapes—in a sort of Flannery O’Connorish way—that end up, in a twist, make you confront yourself even more. And then there are other kinds that say, “Give me seven dollars, and in return I will make you forget your name is David Wallace, that you have a pimple on your cheek, and that your gas bill is due.” And that’s fine, in low doses. But there’s something about the machinery of our relationship to [entertainment] that makes low doses—we don’t stop at low doses.

Joy is caught. It ripples through an environment like a giggle in a middle- school gym class.

This sense of giving oneself away is related to my earlier point about dependence, refusing autonomy, and hence not being receptive to the giftedness of creaturehood. While we want to give ourselves away—which, I think, is a condition of hope—insofar as we give ourselves over to “immanent” sources and distractions, we are hindered from experiencing joy.


This brings me to a final aspect of late modern culture that I think hinders joy: self-consciousness. Both Charles Taylor and David Foster Wallace have astutely diagnosed the extent to which late modern society is one of “mutual display”: where being is bound up with being seen. In a somewhat neglected essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” (written long before the advent of social media), Wallace pointed out how he and his generation of writers (the “conspicuously young”) emerged in the echo chamber of self-consciousness. And this inevitably influenced American fiction.

In particular, Wallace points out that the conspicuously young (Wallace, Jay McInerney, Brett Ellis, and others) were the first generation of writers to grow up with the ubiquity of television. “The American generation born after, say, 1955 is the first for whom television is something to be lived with, not just looked at. We quite literally cannot ‘imagine’ life without it. As it does for so much of today’s developed world, it presents and so defines our common experience; but we, unlike any elders, have no memory of a world without such electronic definition. It’s built in.”

It may seem quaint to carp on television today (“So analog!”), but Wallace’s analysis is prescient. For it is already with television that we see social space reconfigured as a space of mutual display.

A mysterious beast like television begins, the more sophisticated it gets, to produce and live by an antinomy, a phenomenon whose strength lies in its contradiction: aimed ever and always at groups, masses, markets, collectivities, it’s nevertheless true that the most powerful and lasting changes are wrought by TV on individual persons, each one of whom is forced every day to understand himself in relation to the Groups by virtue of which he seems to exist at all.

The gaze of the camera on some becomes the ubiquitous gaze under which we all constantly live. “Prolonged exposure to broadcast drama,” Wallace notes, “makes each one of us at once more self-conscious and less reflective.” When all of us are constituted as an audience, then all the world becomes a TV. “We, the audience, receive unconscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most significant feature of persons is watchableness, and that contemporary human worth is not just isomorphic with but rooted in the phenomenon of watching.” Here is that unique and distorted mode of “being-with” observed by Taylor: to be is to be seen. Do we even have to point out just how this is amplified in the age of social media?

One could argue that this dynamic of being watched, of having a sense of always being on display, is a significant “block” to joy since joy is found in an experience of losing oneself, of being caught up in something bigger, something beyond. Such experiences of joy do not require the dissolution of consciousness, but they do seem to require a release from self-consciousness. Joy is a mode of receptivity wherein one is most aware of others, of an Other, even a Giver. It might include awareness of the “blessings” one enjoys, of a reality that one re-appreciates. But that recognition and awareness seems linked with a welcome look away from self-focus and narcissistic fixation. Insofar as our society seems bent on fostering (if not fomenting) the latter, it seems we shouldn’t be surprised by the absence of the former, that is, joy.

Hoping Otherwise

While there are no shortage of joy inhibitors in late modern society, there is one last feature of joy that might give us hope: its contagion. Joy is caught. It ripples through an environment like a giggle in a middle-school gym class. The grateful person at peace, who moves through the world without anxiety, attuned to being blessed, blazes through late modern culture like a comet of joy. Joy has an attractional power: the joyful person shows us how to be human and so exerts an allure upon us, inviting us to imagine how things could be otherwise. We say, “I’ll have what she’s having!” (This might even explain some of the “Francis effect.”)

The other features and conditions that make joy possible—cultivating a posture of receptivity, fostering the enjoyment of indebtedness, pervasively attending to grace—should be just sort of the posture encouraged by the people of God. Indeed, what if we reconceived our mission in late modernity, not simply as truth-distribution or commandment-dissemination, but as joy-contagion? What if both the cultural mandate and the Great Commission were reconceived as sharing the good news of a great joy, not just telling, but showing?

Topics: Culture Health
James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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