Susan P. Blevins was born in England, lived 26 years in Italy, and has now resided in the USA for the past 24 years, first in Taos, NM, and currently in Houston, TX. While living in Rome she had a weekly column in an international, English-language newspaper, writing about food and restaurant reviews primarily, though not exclusively. Since living in the USA she has written pieces on gardens and gardening for N. American and European publications, and she is now writing stories of her life and travels and gaining traction in various literary publications. She loves reading, writing, cats, classical music, and stimulating conversation.
JOY OR HAPPINESS?
Of late, I’ve been thinking about the difference between happiness and joy. I believe they are very different. Happiness may be likened to surface waters gurgling merrily along as streams and rivers, fed by precipitation in the guise of life’s emotional ups and downs. Using the same analogy, joy is best described as the aquifers that run deep underground and which furnish a constant, reliable supply of water.
The Constitution states we have a right to the “pursuit of happiness”, which is pretty easy to understand, since happy is a word used to describe our mood when we are involved in various enjoyable activities. The “pursuit of joy” would have been a much more demanding proposition.
Happiness is a delightful state of mind, and can be brought on by a delicious meal, a new outfit, a stimulating conversation, a good book, good sex, a hearty laugh, and many other things. When we are happy we smile contentedly until the source of our happiness disappears. We lose a loved one, or we lose our job, therefore our money, therefore the ability to be able to buy those things that we imagine make us happy. When such a shadow is cast upon our lives, happiness is the first thing to vanish. It is a surface condition, and when the surface waters start to roil with turbulence, then happiness is a thing of the past, and worry, fear, depression and a sense of lack set in.
Or you can choose to sink beneath the surface waters of happiness to find the deep wellspring of joy, which is much more likely to withstand the vicissitudes of life, the upheavals that happen to all of us as part of the human condition. So how exactly do we tap into a steady source of joy?
In my own life, I feel really happy when I exercise, dance and sing around my house, drink wine, sit with close friends, cuddle my cat, cook a new recipe that comes out well, complete the tasks on my never-ending list of things to do, and many other small things that give temporary satisfaction.
I find my joy, however, in the few things that feed my soul. Nature and beautiful music probably tie for first place. Caring for plants, sowing seeds and then harvesting the outcome, are a never-ending source of amazement, joy and gratitude to me. Surely gratitude is an important component of joy? And music, words cannot express the uplifting, spiritual experience that washes over me like a benediction when I hear a beautiful composition, executed by musicians in harmony with the composer. The composition may be from the 1800’s, but the interpretation by authentic, heart-connected musicians, continually renews the initial inspiration that came to the composer as a prompting in his soul. From composer’s heart to performer’s heart to audience’s heart, runs an unbroken chain of divinity.
And joy cannot be grasped and held on to jealously, to feed on later. Joy is a perfect expression of being in the ‘now’. I resonate deeply with William Blake’s beautiful and psychologically sound lines, “He who binds to himself a joy,
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”
What a perfect description of rejoicing in the beauty of the moment! And it’s always applicable in our own lives, whichever age we live in. Perhaps in our own age we try very hard to capture and contain those ineffable moments, like taking photographs of beautiful landscapes: we focus on taking the photograph, instead of committing the landscape and the feelings of the moment to our eternal memory. Before the advent of cameras, people used to sketch the scenes they loved, and by that act became a part of the scene. The facile click of the camera now makes it a forgettable instant. Traveling today is more like, “Oh, here’s the Acropolis, so it must be Thursday.” Joy cannot be captured and held down by force. It is not an intellectual exercise, but rather a spiritual experience, which far transcends intellect.
So other than the specifics of, in my case, nature and music, which serve as portals, joy may be defined as a total commitment to living in the present moment, participating in the eternal ‘now’. Just the grasping of the concept that this moment is only now, and will never be repeated, bestows a sanctity upon it. I have had this awareness since I was about nine years of age. “I’ll never live this precise moment ever again.” Why did it matter to me? What told my nine-year old mind to hold such considerations? Perhaps it was grace. I don’t know. I do know that appreciation for such moments of grace is a blessing, whatever it is. To share such a moment with a like-minded person multiplies the blessing, like being together in a river flowing by endlessly, and for just a moment being one with the flow of the river and with each other.
This awareness of time since such a young age was brought on one day by the inconsequential experience of jumping on to the platform of a bus, and thinking to myself, “I’ll never be in this moment again, jumping onto this bus in this place at this time.” Ever since then I have been acutely aware of the passage of time and how ephemeral life is.
So the outcome of these reflections would be the Latin aphorism from Horace, carpe diem, carpe diem, seize the day, seize the day. Joy means feeling fully alive, and that always contains an element of risk, or danger. I have read many times that moments of extreme danger and risk bestow an intense feeling of aliveness. So surely the inspiration is to take a risk, jump off the edge into the unknown, experience uncertainty, and in that moment of falling without knowing if or where we will land, will be our moment of greatest aliveness, and of joy.
I think it’s possible to pass over the threshold of happiness into joy if we allow ourselves to go deep within the moment. Basking in a glorious sunset in beautiful countryside, or over the ocean, can easily pass from aesthetic appreciation to awe of the presence of God. I think what I’m trying to get at, is that joy comes ultimately from a spiritual source. There is always an element of ecstasy in joy, of exaltation. Joy comes from a place which is more universal, and gives us the feeling of scratching on heaven’s door for entrance.
Joy comes when we realize the oneness of all things, whether it be oneness with the glorious sunset, or sharing a deep human connection with another, which goes beyond two individuals to the source of all humanity, where there is total acceptance, total trust, and a willingness to be vulnerable. Those are the sacred moments when we are aware, perhaps unconsciously, that there are no divisions at the universal level, only shared life with all peoples, whatever the color of their skin, or their ethnicity or creed, something we can experience when we love greatly. I had the personal experience of this oneness some years ago during a ride on the underground train in Rome. I looked around at the other people sitting and standing, immersed in their own thoughts and worries, and for an instant I felt that there was no separation, no dividing of the one human spirit into separate bodies. I lost the confines of my physical body and we all melted together in that moment. It was like standing on top of a mountain peak seeing the whole of life spread out before me.
From such a place our human situations are put in perspective. What seemed of such paramount importance to me a moment ago dwindles when viewed from the height of detachment and a greater vision. From on high we can see the pattern of the whole, and the intrinsic unity of all things in the amazing web of life.
The wellspring of joy is also the source of strength and comfort which we need in moments of great loss, like the death of a spouse, or worse still, the death of a child. Only by plumbing the deepest depths can we hope to survive those moment and learn to accept that death is part of life, inexorably so for all of us in the physical form. But what if life continues in another dimension after our body ceases to function? What if death is not an ending, but a beginning?
I believe we have the inner power to transform even fear into joy. All it takes is the will to live life from a place of love. So for me, joy is like a taste of heaven right here on earth, a window opened briefly on to a far greater existence than we are used to living, a door which opens to show us the wisdom of love, gratitude and service.