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  • Dawn Delaney, MA, LPC

Joy: More than a Feeling of Happiness

Dawn Delaney, MA, LPC

What comes to mind when you hear the word joy?




A positive outlook?

Something bright and hopeful?

These ideas are commonly associated with joy, and at times they may accurately describe what we experience when we feel joyful, but joy is so much more than a feeling of happiness.

Joy is often misunderstood in our culture today, especially in Christian culture. We often think that joy is a choice, and that it means we are choosing to be happy or to have a positive outlook. But brain science is now starting to talk about joy in a way that is both more complex and far simpler than the way culture conveys it. This fresh, or more accurately rediscovered, perspective on joy is consistent with how the Bible has always described it, though it has often been lost in translation.

Dr. Allan Schore, a well respected psychologist and researcher in the field of neuropsychology, defines joy as, “what I feel when I see the sparkle in someone’s eye that conveys, “I’m happy to be with you.””

Did you catch that? Joy is what we feel when someone’s face lights up because they are glad to be with us.

Joy is relational.

It is felt in our bodies.

It is not about being happy; It is about experiencing that someone is glad to be with us regardless of what we’re going through.

All throughout Scripture, especially in the original Hebrew text, we see the concept of God’s people walking in the light of His face, and His face being connected with joy. For example:

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” Numbers 6:24-26

In Your presence is fullness of joy [original Hebrew, “abundance of joy with Your face.”].” Ps 16:11

You make him joyful with gladness in Your presence [original Hebrew, “You make him happy with joy in Your face.”].” Ps 21:6

God designed our brains to seek joy through eyes and facial expressions, through being with others who are glad to be with us. From the moment we are born, we are looking for people to reflect back to us that they are glad to be with us. This is seen in the way a baby searches for connection and their face lights up in response to the smile on another person’s face. And we continue to seek joy in this way throughout our lifetime. Think about a recent time when you walked into a room and someone’s face lit up because they were glad to be with you. What did you feel in your body? What did you instinctively do in response? Most likely, your face lit up too in response to the joy you experienced when someone was glad to be with you.

God designed us in such a way that our attachments–our closest relationships–shape the chemistry, structure and growth of our brain. As a result, joy [the experience that others are glad to be with us], or a lack of joy, lays the foundation for how well we will handle relationships, emotions, pain and pleasure throughout our lifetime. Ongoing experiences of joy form an identity that is stable and consistent over time.

When we consistently experience joy, we:

  • feel like we belong

  • feel more stable when things go wrong

  • find it easier to be ourselves

  • feel free to be vulnerable–to share our hearts with God and others

As we grow and develop, joy helps us regulate our emotions and endure suffering. When we are able to stay relationally connected to God and others in the midst of pain, we experience joy while we suffer. Joy does not remove our pain, but it gives us the strength to endure. Joy does not replace the unpleasant emotions; instead it combines with our emotions to keep us relationally connected in distress.

The author of Hebrews highlights Jesus experiencing joy this way: “for the joy set before Him [Jesus] endured the cross.” Heb 12:2

Jesus did not live a life that was free of pain, but He was able to experience joy in the midst of pain and endure suffering because of the strength of His attachment [close relationship] to God.

When we lose our joy, meaning that we lose our connection to God and others who are glad to be with us, it is common to turn to joy substitutes such as drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, porn, social media, in an effort to ease our pain. Low joy cultures will often see an increase in pseudo-joy addictions.

Some things that might contribute to it feeling harder to maintain joy include:

  • a lack of development around the big six emotions

    • not having a well-developed pathway back to joy from sadness, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and despair

  • unresolved trauma

  • the prevalence of screens

  • the presence of a narcissist in your community

How can we prevent this from happening? While we cannot choose joy, we can choose to expand our capacity to experience joy by improving our relational skills, training our brains, and getting involved in a tightly bonded community. Practicing gratitude is the first step to expanding our capacity to experience joy, and helps us experience a more consistent attachment with God, which is ideally what we would want our identity to be founded on.

In summary, joy is not about being happy; it is about experiencing that God and others are glad to be with us no matter what is going on in our lives. Joy gives us the strength to endure pain and to walk through trials while still acting like ourselves. Joy is crucial for both emotional and relational development. We cannot choose joy, but we can choose to build joy in our lives. Stay tuned next month for more on how to expand your capacity to experience joy.



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