THE LOST TREASURE
Why joy has been mislaid, but what it can offer public life today
Writing about the happiness industry in the January 2018 edition of Prospect magazine, Lynne Segal noted: ‘Amid the official talk of happiness, there is little rhetoric of joy’. It is, in fact, rare for the public language of joy to be used in the UK except in relation to the Royal Family, where others are assumed to share in the joy of a royal birth or engagement.
There are places of collective joy, but these are less frequent in an atomised culture. The loss of religious significance means the Church’s year-round festivals are poorly understood and usually detached entirely from their intention, as at Christmas. People make of such moments what they will, but shared meaning has been lost. What is Christmas? A time for family, giving presents, eating and drinking, watching TV, perhaps, but there is nothing unique to Christmas about these activities.
Shared joy still exists, but is has become increasingly tribal and commercial. Regular communal activity is usually found at the sports ground, with deep, if transient feelings of joyfulness happening when a goal or a try is scored. But it is heavily partisan. Look to one side of the stadium and people will be jumping up and down and punching the air. Look to the other side and there will be miserable faces. As this state of affairs can be reversed just a minute later, it is questionable how deep the joy really goes. Music festivals may come closest to exhibiting shared joy, but the early years of a successful festival are usually overtaken by commercial opportunism, meaning – as with sport – that the really big occasions are only for people with money, thus deepening the divide in life. They become the places to be seen, rather than somewhere to lose yourself in spontaneous joy.
One reason people speak so infrequently about it may have something to do with its religious origins. Even the faithful can lose sight of joy – sometimes, especially so. In some churches it is located so deeply in people that it is about as easy to extract as North Sea oil. It is the forgotten fruit. And it is largely misunderstood.
People commonly think of it as an emotion, yet by placing it in his list of the fruit of the Spirit, St Paul established it as a quality or virtue grounded in and derived from the character of God himself. It comes from knowing God well, is found most fruitfully in community with other Christians in worship and mission, surfaces unexpectedly as people endure personal suffering or hostility for their faith and comes from the eager expectation of a world to come established in Christ.
The poverty of much personal devotion, the growing individualisation of life and the loss of belief and interest in the shape of the world to come has each made a contribution to the low profile of joy.
The Church has so much to offer to the modern debate around happiness. While the use of the term itself can feel a little trite, it prioritises personal well-being in the life of a nation which usually audits its health by the amount the economy is growing, even though more and more stuff is known not to bring greater happiness.
The difficulty with measuring happiness is its stand-alone character. By definition, it is extinguished by sadness and feels too brittle to be of lasting value. Joy, by contrast, is a corollary of sadness. It shares in pain, being unafraid of the dark, and leads the bewildered by the hand into the emerging light. It cannot be destroyed by circumstances because it originates in the heart of God. True happiness is the lasting joy of walking through the cross, not round it, into a transformed world.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy.
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