Feet hanging over a pier

Defining Joy
Story 79

By Kirsten Cutler

Has joy ever surprised you? I can remember the first time the snow fell at our home in Maine. After growing up in the winterless South, it was novel and exciting. There was something magical about watching the white flakes dance to the ground through the picture window in our kitchen. I was lost in the moment. I felt joy.

Child doing a somersault

Sometimes joy surprises us – and other times it sustains us. Parenting has to be the most challenging job in the world, but what keeps parents going (at least me) are the moments of joy that punctuate the difficulties. The patience-draining negotiation involving broccoli and ice cream melts away into a spontaneous hug. The teary search for a lost toy leads to the discovery of a long-forgotten favorite book you enjoy together. The stubborn fear of taking off the training wheels becomes newfound freedom – joy for the rider and pride for the parents.

Joy is not something you find at the end of a search or journey, or as a result of a formula. It’s found in connections. Reuniting with a friend and picking up right where you left off. Finding that circle of people who shares your passion. Discovering your new coworker is a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend.

It’s hard to define the feeling, but we experience joy in moments of victory and glimpses of hope. When our hearts are full or when we feel complete. When we just want to rejoice.

Do you recognize joy when it shows up? David Brooks, author of “The Road to Character” as well as several other New York Times bestselling books, offers a vivid description of the feeling based on his research and personal experience. “Joy is not the expansion of self,” he says. “It's the dissolving of self. It's the moment when the skin barrier disappears between a mother and her child. It's the moment when a naturalist feels just free in nature. It's the moment where you're so lost in your work or a cause, you have totally self-forgotten. And joy is a better thing to aim for than happiness.”