In this debut nonfiction work, an academic, clinical psychologist, and psychotherapist reviews the scholarship on joy and attempts to define what it is and how it comes about.
Meadows studied the phenomenon of joy in depth while teaching at Nashville, Tennessee–based Vanderbilt University, where he gathered subjective accounts of joyful experiences from 300 students. Joy, he writes, is “one of the most over-used and under-valued words in the English language.” A “kind of happiness industry has developed,” he says, causing a flood of self-help books and use of “joy” as a marketing buzzword. Psychologists and other scholars have paid far more attention to negative emotions, he notes; nevertheless, positive ones, including joy, have come in for their share of scrutiny, and he covers a lot of ground reviewing literature in the field, starting with Aristotle and working his way through contemporary studies. Joy is not just a feel-good emotion, he writes, but an important mental armament that “serves crucial evolutionary functions,” helping to ensure that infants receive proper care and spurring couples to reproduce, for example. Meadows compares and contrasts it with other, similar emotions, such as happiness, ecstasy, pleasure, transcendence, and even the manic phases of bipolar disorder. Despite its importance, though, joy “comes to a person on its own schedule,” unbidden, Meadows notes, and it’s as fruitless to pursue it—although one may better accommodate it by using philosophy, religion, one’s work, and other channels. Overall, Meadows has written a fascinating book that’s rich in scholarship and detail yet also accessible to general readers. He writes clearly and backs up his work with abundant, intelligently analyzed sources. However, he does fall prey to occasional glitches, such as writing “pedals” instead of “petals” and placing a contemporary scholar just two and a half centuries after Aristotle. That said, he makes a solid case for the evolutionary and emotional importance of joy—providing not only a description of it, but also hints as to how one might approach it, if not necessarily attain it.
An enlightening read for anyone who wants to learn more about joy and related emotions.