Psychology, Self-Development, Videos

The Psychology of Joy – 3 Antidotes to Suffering

The following is a transcript of this video.

“The weak have remedies, the wise have joys; superior wisdom is superior bliss.”

Edward Young, Virtue’s Apology

Some people pass from birth to death with both feet firmly planted on the sunny side of life. Such are the healthy-minded among us. These fortunate individuals are innately predisposed to joy and optimism and experience life as one long celebration, or as William James observed:

“There are men [and women] who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit.”

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

But for others the goodness of life does not flow so naturally. Instead of instinctively bathing in optimism and joy some people are of a more morbid-minded bent and thus predisposed to view life through a darker lens:

“We are like lambs playing in the field,” observed the philosopher Schopenhauer, “while the butcher eyes them and selects first one and then another; for in our good days we do not know what calamity fate at this very moment has in store for us, sickness, persecution, impoverishment, mutilation, loss of sight, madness, death, and so on.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

When our mind is morbid it is blind to joy, and so, if we are predisposed to morbid-mindedness we must counterbalance this darkness with more joy, for as the writer Robert Louis Stephenson noted:

“To miss the joy is to miss all.”

Robert Louis Stephenson, Across the Plains

In this video we are going to explore 3 simple joy-promoting strategies we can use to re-invigorate our life.

When dark thoughts fog the mind, it is easy to believe we are trapped in a labyrinth and that a herculean effort of will is the only means of escape. But this belief neglects the fact that emotions follow actions, that moods reflect surroundings, and that a shift from gloom to joy can be effectuated by engaging in an activity so undemanding that many downplay its therapeutic value. This activity is simply to set aside consistent time to immerse ourselves in the regenerative realms of nature, free from the influence of technology.

“There can be no very black melancholy for him who has his senses still and lives in the midst of nature.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A wealth of studies within the field of ecotherapy have verified what lovers of nature have long known: being in natural settings is a revitalizing force. The more time we spend in nature the more we are blessed with reduced mental fatigue, heightened creativity, feelings of happiness, increased resilience to pain, diminished stress, and even a boosted immune system. The mountaineer John Muir, aptly nicknamed “John of the Mountains”, was no stranger to nature’s ability to infuse us with new life, and as he wrote:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.”

John Muir, The Mountains of California

If our ability to explore nature outside the walls of our city is limited, we should scout out the serene pockets of nature hidden within the concrete jungle, as even spending time in a city park confers some of the joy-promoting benefits associated with being in the wild.

“In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and [in spite of] all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Along with drinking abundantly from the springs of joy that flow forth from nature, another strategy to promote joy is to instigate a subtle change in the way we see the world. Specifically, we can take a page out of the mystic’s playbook and learn to extract joy from our experiences of the so-called “ordinary” and “mundane”.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour.”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

The mystic is typically thought of as the individual who, through years of disciplined meditation and other spiritual exercises, has transcended to a higher level of consciousness, pierced the veils of illusion, and attained unity with the universe or god. But from a more down-to-earth perspective the mystic can be viewed as the individual who has such sharpened sensibilities that he or she is able to see brilliance and beauty in the commonplace and derive immense joy from sights, sounds, and experiences of everyday life. The mystic, in other words, has come to understand that if joy is to be found, then it must be found in what is present and imminent at-hand.

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

To see life through mystic eyes and find joy in our immediate surroundings, we must awaken to the unfathomable mystery of it all. If we are scientifically-inclined, we can facilitate this awakening by contemplating the staggering complexity of life and appreciating how each living thing is a world in and of itself and simultaneously an infinitesimal part of a much greater whole.

“I…a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.”

Richard Feynman, The Value of Science

If we are aesthetically-inclined, we can will ourselves to see the beauty hidden in plain sight in every nook and cranny of the natural world.

“None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.”

John Muir, Our National Parks

If we are philosophically-inclined, we can reflect on the question of why there is something rather than nothing, and given that there is something, why it is this, and not something else.

“Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious!”

William James, Some Problems of Philosophy

The greater our sensitivity to the mysteries all around us the more our eyes will open to what the philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as:

“…the wonder that this world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.”

Martin Heidegger, Gesamtuasgabe

With our eyes open to the wonder-show of the world, we will be more attuned to joy and more capable of deriving happiness and bliss from everyday experiences. We may even find ourselves unwittingly following in the footsteps of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the preeminent mystic-philosophers, and at times suddenly discover we are overflowed with joy for no apparent reason at all. In his book Nature, Emerson described one of his mystical experiences of this type:

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Spending more time in nature and cultivating our mystic-sensibilities are two effective joy-promoting strategies. But these strategies can prove futile if our morbidness becomes so excessive that we adopt what William James called “the dust-and-ashes state of mind”. This mindset is defined by the dreadful suspicion that evil and futility lurk behind all experiences, and that the greatest goods of life are rotten with a worm at the core. James was no stranger to this mindset and as a young man he confessed in a letter to his brother: “I cannot bring myself, as so many seem able to do, to blink the evil out of sight, and gloss it over.” In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience James wrote the following about this morbid state of mind:

“Make the human being’s sensitiveness a little greater, carry him a little farther over the misery-threshold, and the good quality of the successful moments themselves when they occur is spoiled and vitiated. All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish. Can things whose end is always dust and disappointment be the real goods which our souls require? Back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness.”

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Fortunately, there is a joy-promoting antidote to this dust-and-ashes form of morbid-mindedness and it is to go on what James called a “moral holiday”. On such a holiday we do not go anywhere physically, we simply stop caring any longer, we let go of our burdens, relax, and grant our conscience a rest; we relinquish the struggle with our morbid thoughts and emotions and in the words of James: 

“…[become] genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all.”

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

James cites numerous anecdotes and studies which vouch for the efficacy of this approach, the wisdom of which is captured:

“…[in the parable] of a man who found himself at night slipping down the side of a precipice. At last he caught a branch which stopped his fall, and remained clinging to it in misery for hours. But finally his fingers had to loose their hold, and with a despairing farewell to life, he let himself drop. He fell just six inches. If he had given up the struggle earlier, his agony would have been spared.” (James)

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

In Varieties of Religious Experience James explains in psychological terms why taking a moral holiday can stimulate a re-affirmation of life:

There are only two ways in which it is possible to get rid of anger, worry, fear, despair, or other undesirable affections. One is that an opposite affection should overpoweringly break over us, and the other is by getting so exhausted with the struggle that we have to stop—so we drop down, give up, and don’t care any longer. Our emotional brain-centres strike work, and we lapse into a temporary apathy. Now there is documentary proof that this state of temporary exhaustion not infrequently forms part of the conversion…[into a more joyous state]…[one] passes from the everlasting No to the everlasting Yes through a “Centre of Indifference.””

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

The French-Algerian philosopher Albert Camus wrote that:

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy. Everything else…is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

For the healthy-minded who experience life as one long celebration, this question is answered with a resounding Yes! But for the morbid-minded, the answer is not so clear. Melancholy and the dark thoughts that accompany it can send one down gloomy paths that lead to questions of the value of existence.  But the truth is that life is always worth living so long as there is the possibility of experiencing joy. Even brief and infrequent moments of joy have the power to justify life, liberate us from the weight of our past, and grant us the affirmative strength to carry on in spite of hardship and suffering. “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”, as the ancient Chinese proverb put it, or as Nietzsche wrote:

“If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence…if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event – and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”

Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Seekers of joy we should thus become, for if we miss the joy, what else is there?

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Markó, Károly - Landscape at Tivoli, with a Scene from the Grape Harvest - Google Art Project
Pierre-Auguste Renoir - By the Water
Rosa - A Hermit Contemplating a Skull, 1640–1649
The Raven MET MM61688
Michael Sweerts - self portrait with a skull c.1660
Drawing, Alpine Scene in Thunderstorm, 1868 (CH 18198991)
Can We Living Ever Solve? After—Is It Then Too Late? by Elihu Vedder
Edward Mitchell Bannister - Approaching Storm - 1983.95.62 - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Jean-François Millet (II) - Spring - WGA15693
Pine Forest by Ivan Shishkin 1895
Iwan Iwanowitsch Schischkin 003
У берегов Финского залива 1 (Шишкин)
Eugene VON GUÉRard - North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko - Google Art Project
Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret - Willows by a Stream - 24.216 - Museum of Fine Arts
John Warwick Smith - Hafod- Upper Part of Cascade - Google Art Project
Albert Bierstadt - Rocky Mountain Waterfall (1898)
Nicholas Roerich. Agni Yoga. Diptych. Right part
Blagoslovennaj dusha
Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project
Harald Sohlberg - Street in Røros in Winter - Google Art Project
Joseph Wright of Derby - Landscape with a Rainbow - B2014.19 - Yale Center for British Art
Harald Sohlberg - Flower Meadow in the North - Google Art Project
John Macallan Swan - A Lioness and a Snake
Jean-Léon Gérôme - Black Panther Stalking a Herd of Deer - 30.232 - Museum of Fine Arts
1872 Schischkin Pinienwald anagoria
David - A Philosopher, 1779
George Inness - Lake Nemi - 49.412 - Museum of Fine Arts
Ivan Shishkin - Winter
Memento mori painting by Carstian Luyckx
17th-century Netherlandish artist - Democritus with a skull
John William Godward - Sweet Dreams - c 1901
The quiet pet, by John William Godward
Bouguereau-Rest at harvest(1865)
'Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen', by Peder Severin Krøyer (1888) Demisted with DXO PhotoLab Clearview; cropped away black border edge
Evelyn de Morgan - A Soul in Hell, 1902
Carl Gustav Carus - Pilger im Felsental - Google Art Project
Caspar David Friedrich 027
Charles Leslie Schottische Landschaft 1872