What is “Joy,” Anyway?

I’ve been on an etymology kick lately. Roots of words feel more meaningful than definitions, which seem to change with the linguistic seasons.

So I’ve decided to cultivate joy. Embrace joy. Find out what I’m like as a person by figuring out what brings me joy.

But what is joy, anyway?

The dictionary definition links joy to happiness (I’ll get there in a minute), but the root of joy is Latin: gaudere, “rejoice.”

I think of rejoicing as being linked to gratitude. I’m not a scripture-quoter (at all!), but when I hear “rejoice,” my mind immediately goes to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12), which I come by via Godspell.

(Side note: I’m in a semi-hopeful agnostic-theist phase right now, but I will always love feet-reading, rainbow-suspenders-wearing Godspell Jesus.)

I associate the root of joy with praise and gratitude, and I think there might be something to this.

The deepest joy I ever experienced happened in the space between my daughter’s birth and the postpartum hemorrhage that nearly ended my life. As I was being carried from my house, across the front lawn to a waiting ambulance, I looked up at the most beautiful blue sky I had ever seen. I was suddenly awash with love for everything and everyone, and I sighed, “What a beautiful day to have a baby!”

Despite the circumstances (or perhaps because of them) everything seemed good. Of course, I was high on the biggest rush of oxytocin I had ever or will ever experience. But I was also filled with the unshakable sense that everything was so right!

That “rightness,” that sense of this is good—that, to me, is what joy is.

Happiness feels good, too, but there’s a lightness to it. Happiness is pleasurable in the moment. “Happy” was originally synonymous with “lucky,” so meant good, but in the sense of good fortune. And fortune is like weather: fleeting, and not very predictable.

Because of that lightness, it’s hard for happiness to exist alongside other emotions. Happiness tends to get weighed down by anything extra, especially heavy experiences. But joy, at least in my experience, can survive difficult circumstances. I can be sitting with a friend in a deep state of grief, feeling sorrow and heartbreak, and still feel joy: the joy of being with someone I love, the joy of witnessing another’s experience, the joy of empathy. The joy of this is right.

There’s no happiness in shared trauma. But gathering around people in pain, in trouble, in a state of emergency, and helping (or being gathered around and receiving help) is right, feels so right, and merits rejoicing.

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