the definition of joy


The Wisdom Divas, my girl group, has decided to write “joy journals,” the kind of thing you did when you were 13 years old which we’re not, and the kind of thing you forget about after 13 when you have joy nailed down. Which we don’t. 

So I’ve been working on a more grown-up definition of this easy-to-toss around word that can mean different things to different people and different things in different cultures perhaps and different things one day to the next and different things from morning until night. I’ve been so curious about the proper way to explain this fleeting yet enviable goal, this ephemeral thing, I’ve found myself in a state of constant expectation, waiting for joy to bump me in the night. 

Am I feeling joy now? Is this it? Am I doing it right?  

When I was a little girl, my mother would cut a thick slice of ripe pineapple, wrap it in a napkin, and sit me on the front stoop to watch the world go by. I still eat pineapple that way today and get the same burst of -- what? -- peace, glee, absorption? 

I eat a slice and think, is this joy?  

Or maybe it’s the sense of wonder when I step outside the back door and spy a hawk soaring on the wind and my breath stops. Is that it? Does joy make you kick-up your heels, or is it satisfaction in the every day? 

And whatever it is -- how in the world do we get more of it? 

Lots of questions, fewer answers. 

The Divas look up the official definition. We put our heads together and go with “extreme happiness”; we decide we want it with extreme greediness. The journals begin. The idea is to identify joy, own it, expand it.  

I sit in my car in a crowded parking lot on a sunny day, ready to enter the mall. The temperature is crisp yet warm, lovely, but I’m inside my stuffy car wondering how to get what is maybe waiting on the other side of my window.  

The humor doesn’t escape me. I laugh. Is that joy? 

In yoga philosophy, the word for joy is contentment or “santosha,” something I once thought was an excuse for not getting what I want. Maybe that’s true. Santosha is the ability to stay centered even if the pineapple isn’t sweet, if the soaring hawk is a crow eating the trash. It’s not about achieving or acquiring. Some say it’s about living in the present moment, without fear of the future or regret for the past. 

Those moments, so rare, are said to last while the others disappear. 

I take out my “Book of Positive Quotations.” I find a full 40 pages on happiness -- more than on hope, courage, success, every single topic. The grown-up search for happiness beats all. 

I find this, “Joy is the feeling of grinning on the inside” (Author Melba Colgrove). And this, “Those who seek happiness miss it, and those who discuss it, lack it” (Author Holbrook Jackson). And simply this, “Learn how to feel joy” (Philosopher Seneca). 

I pick up my journal to see what I’ve written so far: 

Swimming in an empty pool -- me and the water

Hiking in the fresh spring air

Helping a friend find peace at a tough time

Watching a tiny bird flutter on a tree limb

Getting into bed early to read

Having time and space without commitments

I close the journal. The sun is shining. I slice a thick wheel of pineapple, wrap it in a napkin, and go sit outside to watch the world go by. It makes me feel good, that’s all I know. 

So much for growing up . . .  

April 10, 2017 

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