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Finding joy in 2020? It’s not such an absurd idea, really
Amid such suffering, people need some joy.
The year 2020 hasn't been one to remember – in fact, for a lot of people it has been an outright nightmare. The pandemic, along with political turmoil and social unrest, has brought anxiety, heartbreak, righteous anger and discord to many.
Amid such suffering, people need some joy.
As a scholar who has investigated the role of joy in day-to-day life, I believe that joy is an incredibly powerful companion during suffering.
Speaking at funerals, teaching joy
This is more than academic work for me. In late 2016, less than a year after I was hired to be on a team researching joy at Yale University, three of my family members unexpectedly died within four weeks: my cousin's husband Dustin at 30 by suicide, my sister's son Mason at 22 of sudden cardiac arrest, and my dad, David, at 70 after years of opioid use.
While researching joy, I was speaking at funerals. At times, even reading about joy felt so absurd that I almost vowed to be anything but joyful.
In 2020, many people can relate to this.
I want to be clear: Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness tends to be the pleasurable feeling we get from having the sense that life is going well.
Joy, on the other hand, has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even – sometimes, most especially – in the midst of suffering. This is because joy is what we feel deep in our bones when we realize and feel connected to others – and to what is genuinely good, beautiful and meaningful – which is possible even in pain. Whereas happiness is generally the effect of evaluating our circumstances and being satisfied with our lives, joy does not depend on good circumstances.
A couple of days after my cousin's husband died, a small group of family members and I were shopping for funeral items when the group decided to go to the place where Dustin had died by suicide. It was getting dark and the sun had almost set. As we were taking in the landscape we suddenly noticed a star above the trees. Standing next to one another in a line, we looked across the sky and one of us asked whether any other stars could be seen. There were none. We realized that there was just this one exceedingly bright shining star in the sky.
Gazing at the star, we felt as if Dustin had met us there, that he'd allowed that single star to be seen in the sky so that we would know he was all right. It was not the kind of relief we wanted for him. But for a few minutes we allowed the tragedy of what had occurred in this very space just two days before to hang in the background, and we instead focused on the star. We were filled with a kind of transformative, quiet joy. And we all gave ourselves over to this moment.
Similarly, Nel Noddings, Stanford professor and author of the 2013 book "Caring," describes joy as a feeling that "accompanies a realization of our relatedness." What Noddings meant by relatedness was the special feeling we get from caring about other people or ideas.
Joy is also the feeling that can arise from sensing kinship with others, experiencing harmony between what we are doing and our values, or seeing the significance in an action, a place, a conversation or even an inanimate object.
When I teach about joy, I use an example from my family to explain this. When my sister looks at a Mason jar now – whether in someone's hand filled with tea or bursting with flowers on a friend's coffee table – it reminds her of her son Mason. It is not just an object she is seeing, but a relationship imbued with beauty, goodness and meaning. It gives her a feeling that can be described only as joy.
We cannot put joy on our to-do lists; it does not work that way. But there are ways we can prepare ourselves for joy. There are "gateways" to joy that help us to become more open to it.
Gratitude involves bringing to mind the good that is in the world, which makes rejoicing possible. The feeling that follows contemplating nature or art that we find inspiring is often joy, as these are experiences that help people feel connected to something beyond themselves, whether to the natural world or to others' feelings or experiences. Since "hope," as theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, is "the anticipation of joy," writing out our hopes helps us to expect joy.
Three types of joy
In my book, "The Gravity of Joy," I identify multiple kinds of joy that can be expressed even in today's troubled times.
Retrospective joy comes in vividly recalling a previous experience of unspeakable joy. For example, we can imagine in our minds an occasion when we helped someone else, or someone unexpectedly helped us, a time we felt deeply loved … the moment we saw our child for the first time. We can close our eyes and meditate on the memory, even walk through the details with someone else or in a journal and, often, experience that joy again, sometimes even more acutely.
There is a kind of joy, too, that is redemptive, restorative – resurrection joy. It is the feeling that follows things that are broken getting repaired, things that we thought were dead coming back to life. This kind of joy can be found in apologizing to someone we have hurt, or the feeling that follows recommitting ourselves to sobriety, a marriage or a dream we feel called to.
Futuristic joy comes from rejoicing that we will again glimpse meaning, beauty or goodness, and seemingly against all odds feel that they are connected to our very life. This type of joy can be found, for example, through singing in a religious service, gathering at a protest demanding change or imagining a hope we have being realized.
In the midst of a year in which it is not difficult to stumble onto suffering, the good news is that we can also stumble onto joy. There is no imprisoned mind, heartbreaking time or deafening silence that joy cannot break through.
Joy can always find you.
Angela Gorrell, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Credit: NAOJ<p><em>Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.</em></p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.