Overjoyed

My wife texted me from her resiliency seminar: “what is the difference between joy and happiness?”
My knee-jerk response was, “Happiness has more letters?”. In other words, joy and happiness are completely synonymous. But after thinking about it a little more, I reconsidered.
“Happiness is a philosopher’s word,” I wrote back, “joy is a theologian’s word.”

Joy was never a candidate for the means of exchange in Jeremy Bentham’s moral economy.. He understood that nobody would accept such a scheme, because it would require a quantification of joy. Joy can’t be priced out. Happiness, on the other hand, might be weighed and measured.
A quantum of happiness is plausible because happiness refers to a state of affairs. When someone claims to be happy, we expect that they can explain themselves. If pressed, the happy person can break down their happiness into the status of the various bits of their world. Their health is good. Their interpersonal relationships are running smoothly. Their access to basic resources is secure. Although there may be practical difficulties in arriving at an accurate sum, it seems possible in principle.,

Joy does not feel causal gravity, and therefore defies our scales. When someone says that they are joyful, they claim to experience a sensation. If joy really does refer to a sensation, even in part, then it shares the burden of mystical subjectivity with other sensations. It is explicable to a point, but there is an extra bit right at the end. A good analogy is the difference, for me, between buying a cold drink with American money and buying a cold drink with Bahamian money. I feel no joy in handing over greenbacks. The bills are boring to the point of oppression Bahamian notes are completely different. Their design and color give me a little bit of joy as I hand them over. The drink is just as refreshing. I can explain why I like the colors and graphics on Bahamian notes, even down to ostensibly subconscious factors. But that certain something which accompanies a transaction mediated by the beautiful notes defies a thorough analysis.. It doesn’t do anything in the transaction; it is just a particular feeling experienced along the way.

The loose ends of experience, those “just so” remnants flapping at the tail end of joy, fear, pleasant views and burned fingers, call for our acceptance. Yet, we rarely stop at acceptance. We want to put our sensations of belonging to work. Something that does nothing, can do anything. So, the loose ends of experience frequently serve as philosophical everlasting gob stoppers. As described in the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, an everlasting gob stopper is a piece of gum which can generate a limitless series of flavors. It is the last piece of gum a person would ever need. Such is the role of joy in a resiliency seminar.

Resiliency originated as a concept in psychology. It is meant to describe the capacity of some people to avoid the consequences of chronic stress. Resiliency is resistance to “burnout”. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what happened when corporate America got wind of this notion. A thorough expose’ would take volumes but would yield no better account than the words of Lone Watie, depicted by the great Dan George in the film The Outlaw Josie Wales,:.

“I wore this frock coat in Washington, before the war. We wore them because we belonged to the five civilized tribes. We dressed ourselves up like Abraham Lincoln. We only got to see the Secretary of the Interior, and he said: “Boy! You boys sure look civilized.!” he congratulated us and gave us medals for looking so civilized. We told him about how our land had been stolen and our people were dying. When we finished he shook our hands and said, “endeavor to persevere!” They stood us in a line: John Jumper, Chili McIntosh, Buffalo Hump, Jim Buckmark, and me — I am Lone Watie. They took our pictures. And the newspapers said, “Indians vow to endeavor to persevere.”

We thought about it for a long time, “Endeavor to persevere.” And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.”

Resiliency lessons are an organization’s way of telling its human resources to endeavor to persevere. If the resources are persuaded to buy in, promoting resiliency is much cheaper and easier than trying to fix a dysfunctional system whose friction causes its operators to burst into flame with prolonged contact. It is not an easy sale. But the seminarians have an incentive. They offer a gobstopper programed with the flavors of joy. Follow their chewing instructions, and sweet, sweet joy will sweep away the bitter taste of stress. Their enticement is incredibly appealing. No one in their right mind would choose to cook up a recipe for happiness and hope for a joyful aftertaste, when they can simply chew on the taste of joy.

It is not so easy though, to seek out an emotion. The resiliency gurus quickly achieve their goal with the joy gob stopper. The room is soon busy chewing, and no one is thinking about their smoldering psyche or the stressors which are slowly roasting it. But the room is not all smiles. One by one, those who chew the gob stopper confront its single flaw: it is sold as a vehicle for pure experience, which does nothing,, and so can do anything, but it can’t actually do anything after all.

The original gobstopper, as manufactured by Willy Wonka, would sometimes taste like something weird. It could randomly taste like for instance, a turkey dinner. The gobstopper does something, but not just anything. It doesn’t give the chewer the taste of turkey and dressing. It represents the taste, like a urinal hanging on a gallery wall represents an actual urinal. A representation can standalone, and therefore appear to do nothing, but it merely appears to do nothing. It is indicating, in part or in whole, what it represents. It cannot escape circumstance, and so it cannot produce a consistent response in its beholder. Many gallery patrons appreciate the urinal; many more find it discordant. The flavor of a turkey dinner is discordant with most people’s idea of a positive gum chewing experience.

The chewer is left holding the experiential bag when they bite down on Wonka’s gobstopper, and that bag contains a piece of gum that tastes like cornbread soaked in turkey broth. Those who taste the joy gobstopper are holding the same bag, and as they try to suck joy from its contents, the resiliency students encounter discord as well. Techniques aimed at producing a psychological atmosphere conducive to joy only yield an uncertain representation of the emotional state. What those techniques do with certainty is expose the transitory nature of joyful experiences. As the student focuses on their feelings, they are confronted with the fact that joyful sensations shift with the circumstances. A joyful feeling cannot be parlayed into a persistent mood.

Faced with inconsistent results from following the Master’s teaching, a student may legitimately wonder if they really ever experienced joy in the first place. Perhaps they are congenitally joy deficient, and what they called joy was just some particularly thorough happiness. Maybe they are not trying hard enough. Maybe they are trying too hard. They may wonder if there is a test that they can take to diagnose the cause of their inconsistent joy. On the other hand, maybe they just need a new guru with a new seminar.

Our thoughts come to us unbidden. We don’t wish to have a thought and then think that thought because we wished it. That doesn’t mean that we can’t anticipate circumstances in which certain thoughts may occur, and we certainly expect to be able to explain our thoughts in terms of their circumstances. We just don’t have any sort of “prospective reflection”. The same is true of our emotional phenomena. They happen, and we can anticipate under what circumstances, but they don’t happen through our direct effort or desire

We are better off accepting how we feel, and working with those emotions than we are trying to engineer our psychology to generate emotional sensations in service of an end. At work, we should shake off the resiliency spell. Despite the promises coming from all the Wonka’s in all their resiliency power points, we can’t escape burnout by engineering our psychology to feel joyful about it, or even to feel joyful despite it. Instead, we should pursue the happiness that comes with having the time and resources to do a decent job.

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