Joy to the World: The feeling of happiness

Dec 26 2016

If there is an emotion that is most strongly associated with the Christmas and New Year holidays it must surely be Joy. In the text as well as performances of the Christmas carol ‘Joy to the world’, Joy is associated with singing and a very physical and spontaneous sense of well-being. [The carol was written by Isaac Watts, a pastor with a father who was jailed for his non-conformist views, in 1719 and with a famous musical setting written by George Frederick Handel.]

In fact, it’s not just Christmas-time that is associated with joy and happiness. Most people will first think of happiness when asked to name emotions. In one experiment, people asked to keep a diary of emotions tended to record more negative than positive emotions in the diary but, when prompted at random times to name their current emotional state, positive emotions were much more common (twice as frequent as fear or anger).

Although Joy and Happiness are often seen as equivalent, Joy has a more moment-to-moment or spontaneous quality than happiness. You could say that happiness is often in the background, while Joy is very much in the foreground. Joy is associated with spontaneous events too and most commonly with friends, eating, drinking, having sex or achieving unexpected success. However, relief from suffering is not commonly seen as Joyful.

The association with more sensual pleasures, goes back to the middle ages and earlier. Joy derives from the old French joie, itself derived from the Latin word gaudia, meaning to rejoice or be glad, expressions of pleasure or sensual delight.

By contrast, Happy comes from the old Norse word happ, meaning a quality of good luck, chance or success (as in the word ‘happenstance’). Up until the 18th century the feeling of Joy and Happiness implied that God’s grace was shining on you, and much more associated with good fortune rather than an outcome of your own actions.

The meaning of happiness started shifting in the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson famously included “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (although it’s not clear how he thought happiness could or should be pursued).

The British philosophy of Utilitarianism was more explicit in trying to pursue and measure happiness. However, Jeremy Bentham’s formula for happiness famously led John Stuart Mill, the person most strongly associated with Utilitarianism, to a mental breakdown as a young man. His melancholic contemplation helped him realize that happiness might be more complicated than a simple formula. As he wisely commented, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”

Darwin also noticed that happiness and joy had very physical indicators. He wrote that happiness often came with smiling, laughing, retraction of the corners of the mouth, lowering of the outer corners of the eyebrows, quickening of the circulation, brightening of the eyes, colouring of the complexion, clapping, stamping, dancing about and sometimes crying.  He wrote, “Joy, when intense, leads to purposeless movements – to dancing about, clapping the hands, stamping, etc., and to loud laughter … We clearly see this in children at play, who are almost incessantly laughing.”

The smile was first researched by Duchenne du Boulogne who determined which muscles are needed to make a smile (he also looked at other facial expressions). Both he and Darwin correctly identified the differences between genuine smiles and those that are more a social construction, and even today the genuine article is known as a “Duchenne” smile.

So what is the difference? Genuine smiles are hard to fake, as they are associated with the movement of a muscle above the eye where crow’s feet form (called the orbicularis oculi). Anyone can fake a smile by raising the corners of their mouth and baring their teeth, but if the muscle above the eye remains motionless the smile lacks authenticity.

Paul Ekman says that in a genuine smile you can see the cheeks move higher and the eyebrows tip down slightly. False smiles can also be asymmetrical, and their timing may be out of sync with the social situation – coming a little too early or a little too late.

From Emotions Revealed: Understanding faces and feelings by Paul Ekman

Even five-month old infants know the difference, using the eye muscle smile when their mother approaches but a smile without eye muscle movement when approached by a stranger. For those who are married, happily married couples use eye-muscle smiles when they meet at the end of the day, while unhappily married couples do not this movement when they smile at each other.

Physical sensations also dominate the many metaphors that are commonly used for happiness. Happiness is up (rather than down), off the ground, in heaven, light (and not heavy), warm (not cold), energetic and vital, healthy and forceful. We can be ‘overflowing’ with joy and even ‘insanely’ happy.

Smiling even influences our brain chemistry. Joy is associated with the release of dopamine in the brain, and it is speculated that when dopamine is released in certain parts of the brain it may affect the way we process information, helping us to switch perspective more easily, a key component of creativity (many experiments have shown that people are more creative when happy as when listening to music that they enjoy).

Even the act of moving these muscles makes people feel happier, even if not part of a full smile. Fritz Strack famously got people to hold a pen between their teeth without touching the lips and measured their reaction to cartoons – they were rated as more funny when the pen was in a position mimicking a smile than in others. This shows that the facial muscles are sensitive enough to feed back their position to the brain and alter our mood.

Does this make the smile a cause or a result of feeling happy? In the same way, sitting upright makes you feel happier than when you’re slumped. William James in the 19th century claimed that emotions are caused by our awareness of physical sensations. He used his theory to treat his own depression and the more he smiled the better he felt. Perhaps that’s why all humans like people who smile more than people who frown?

Joy is often associated with a higher arousal, increased heart and breathing rates, although it can also be linked to states of complete calm. Chemically it is linked to an increase in endorphins, and strongly linked to pleasure and reward in the brain. In one model of the emotions, Joy exists at different levels of intensity from Serenity through to Joy and at Ecstasy at its most intense.

Joy is the only one of the main six (or seven) emotions that is positive. Until recently, most medical and psychological researched focused on treating ‘abnormal’ conditions and therefore on negative emotions. Recently this emphasis has changed with the realization of the importance of well-being in health and positive emotions have become much more important (as seen in the many popular writings on happiness and positive psychology).

Is Joy an unfair emotion with its bias to people who already feel happy? Happy people are better at coping with distressing events, more attractive to others, and find it easier to conjure up happy memories. Because they feel happy, they smile more, creating a feedback loop. Whether fair or unfair, there are some obvious lessons for all of us.

It seems that the path to happiness starts with a smile, although singing, dancing, drinking and friendship often lend a helping hand. So never turn down a party invitation, especially at this Joyful time of year!


A Natural History of Human Emotions by Stuart Walton

Emotional Rollercoaster: A journey through the science of feelings by Claudia Hammond

Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution by Robert Plutchik

The Book of Human Emotions: an encyclopedia of feeling from anger to wanderlust by Tiffany Watt Smith

Emotion: Pleasure and pain in the brain by Morten Kringelbach and Helen Phillips

Emotions Revealed: Understanding faces and feelings by Paul Ekman

Metaphor and Emotion: Language, culture, and body in human feeling by Zoltan Kovecses

The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

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