University News

Joy and Well-Being

by Philip C. Watkins, Brandy Hutton, and Robert A. Emmons

Joy is one of the last major unexplored positive emotions, largely neglected by emotion scientists. Although it is one of the six basic, innate, and universal emotions, there has been little systematic study of it in psychology. Why has so little research been devoted to the study of joy? Joy is often used as a synonym for happiness, and is commonly treated as a generic positive feeling experienced with other positive emotions. Research suggests however, that joy is a distinct and specific positive emotional response that deserves research attention in and of itself. Although joy may often occur along with other positive emotions, research indicates that joy is a distinct positive emotion. Nine different studies examined the similarities and differences between joy and other positive emotions and found that joy was distinct from other positive emotions, including gratitude, contentment, and concentration/interest. Furthermore, research has shown that distinct interpretations cause joy, and it also helps us live well in a way that distinguishes it from other positive emotions. Thus, these studies suggest that joy is a discrete positive emotion deserving of research in its own right.

How and why is joy vital to human existence? Joy is fundamentally about “connection” — the primary purpose of joy is to reinforce our important relationships with others. When we experience joy, our social bonds are strengthened. This suggests a distinct set of thinking patterns that are likely to cause joy. Joy occurs when we interpret a situation as indicating a connection or return to something good. For example, reunions between people who care for each other but who have been apart for some time are most likely to induce joy. Although these ideas need to be tested by future research, we believe that this best captures the kinds of interpretations of events that are most likely to cause joy.

One reason that joy has been neglected by researchers is because it has not been defined and differentiated from other pleasant feelings, so we need a clearer understanding of this emotion. Like other emotions, joy is the result of an interpretation of a situation that relates directly to our concerns or what we want in life. In this case, the interpretation pertains to the perception of goodness. Joy is a response to something we think is “good.” Recent theoretical work has attempted to define the ways in which the object of joy is good. First, the good is something that one has longed and hoped for. We experience joy when we receive news that something we have been longing and waiting for is finally coming to be. Second, joy has a sense of excess; we perceive the object of joy is more than we expected or believe we deserve, and for this reason we feel especially blessed. Also, we are more likely to experience joy when there has been a “turning of fortune” or “redemptive twist” where something good follows on the heels of something bad. This is why we are likely to experience joy at an unexpected reunion with a friend or loved one; the separation is followed by a surprise reconnection. Joy is also a “response to the goodness of the order of the world” (Thompson, 2015, p. 35). In other words, we experience joy when we believe that our life is being well-lived. This appraisal is difficult if we are living life in a way that is inconsistent with the basic needs of human existence (e.g., trying to live without others). In this sense, joy functions as a barometer of our “attunement with the world” (Thompson, p. 35).

A few studies have examined the connection between joy and subjective well-being. Researchers have developed measures of joy as both a temporary state (feeling joyful in the moment) and as a more enduring personality trait (a tendency to experience joy more or less often than other people). These measures are moderate to strong predictors of measures of both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Moreover, joy is related to gratitude and spirituality. In a recent study where we looked at joy over a period of time, gratitude predicted increased future joy. Somewhat surprisingly, joy also predicted increases in gratitude over time, suggesting an intriguing upward spiral between gratitude and joy. In other words, it looks like gratitude increases joy, but in turn joy also increases gratitude; and this “cycle of goodness” might be important to our happiness. Joy also predicted increases in happiness over time, supporting the idea that joy is important to subjective well-being. If joy is important to subjective well-being, how can we encourage it? Answers to this question remain for future investigations.

Although the study of joy is still in its infancy, several conclusions from research can be drawn. First, joy is caused by a distinct pattern of thinking: People experience joy when they feel (re)connected to someone or something important. Second, joy predicts increased happiness over time. Third, although gratitude and joy are distinct, they support each other in a “cycle of goodness” that enhances your well-being. Finally, joy seems essential for “the good life,” and people would be wise not to miss the opportunity to pursue this emotion. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, “For to miss joy, is to miss all.”

Phillip Watkins is Professor of Psychology at Eastern Washington University and conducts research on gratitude and joy. Brandy Hutton is a graduate student in psychology at Eastern Washington University. Robert Emmons is Professor of Psychology at University of California, Davis. He is one of the preeminent researchers on gratitude and joy and the senior editor of the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Suggested Reading

Lewis, C. S. (1955). Surprised by joy: The shape of my early life. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.

Thompson, M. M. (2015). Reflections on joy in the Bible. In M. Volf & J. E. Crisp (Eds), Joy and human flourishing: Essays on theology, culture, and the good life (pp. 17-38). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Vaillant, G. E. (2008). Spiritual evolution: How we are wired for faith, hope, and love. New York: Broadway Books.

Volf, M., & Crisp, J. E. (2015). Joy and human flourishing: Essays on theology, culture, and the good life. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Watkins, P. C., Emmons, R. A., Greaves, M., & Bell, J. D., (2018). Joy is a distinct positive emotion: Assessment of joy and relationship with gratitude and well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology, 13, 522-539.

Watkins, P. C., & Schiebe, D. (2018). Gratitude. In J. Maddux (Ed), Subjective well-being and life satisfaction. New York: Psychology Press.