Do we have a universal right to joy?
I’ve recently had some new people come into my life who really understand Aesthetics of Joy and what I’m trying to achieve with it. And because they understand it so well, they’re able to challenge me to think about the subject in very different ways. So a couple of weeks ago, one of these new acquaintances asked me this question, and it’s had my mind humming ever since. Is there such a thing as a “universal right to joy”?
I answered “yes” immediately, purely on intuition, and since then have been thinking through why I believe this so strongly. After all, I don’t believe people have a universal right to be happy. Our Declaration of Independence grants a right to pursue happiness, but pursuit hardly guarantees achievement. In the case of happiness, pursuing it might actually chase it away. But I do feel that people have a universal right to joy.
Why joy and not happiness? Perhaps because happiness is so much more complicated than joy. The equation for happiness integrates many factors: our biological set point, our circumstances, our relationships, our habits, our sense of meaning and purpose. And because it includes so many different elements, everyone’s definition of happiness is a little bit different. It would be hard to say we are entitled to some starry alignment of all these factors, when some are in our control and others out of it, and they vary so much by individual and by the conditions of our birth, and even with scientific terminology, we’re not sure that we know what it actually means to be “happy.”
Joy, by contrast, is much simpler. We don’t have to think about it — we just feel it. We feel it in our bodies, warm and light, and we can see it in the bodies and on the faces of others. Darwin documented people and animals in states of joy, and found it easy to identify people experiencing joy by their bright eyes, smiles, and laughter, as well as their upright and open posture. Joy has a universal language, because the emotion itself is universal. We can come into a moment of joy by encountering something delightful, or we can conjure it in the mind, through memories or imagination. But we can’t fake it. And in fact research shows that we can all discern a fake smile, because the muscles that contract around our eyes in a real smile are not under our conscious control. Joy is visceral and automatic. We’re hardwired to feel it — it is a primal sense that tells us in a moment that life is good.
This the crux of the matter: the potential for joy is an intrinsic and essential part of our minds. While happiness needs to be pursued or explained, joy is already within us, ready to be stirred and released. For whatever reason, evolution found joy to be a critical mechanism for guiding us towards things that enhanced the survival of our species. Joy is the most powerful signal of our thriving, and the capacity to feel it is our birthright as humans.
So if we all have the potential for joy already within us, why does it need to be a right? Can’t we just experience it whenever we want? Are there really obstacles to joy that affect people disproportionately?
It may sound silly in the abstract, but in practice, there are obstacles to an equal right to joy. I’m thinking of the fact that joy can tend to be viewed as a luxury, not a necessity. I’ve often heard joy dismissed as extraneous, something high up on Maslow’s hierarchy that should be considered only after more basic needs like shelter and security are met. But this argument completely misinterprets the emotions and why we have them. Even in dire physical circumstances, people seek out moments of beauty and delight. And this is not an irrational impulse, because these moments provide respite from hardship and offer hope of a better future. Joy reminds us we are human, and gives us something to live for.
The rise of “favela painting,” which brings color and vibrancy to slums and other areas ground down by poverty, is physical expression of this idea. The artists Haas & Hahn (Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn) recently raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter to paint an entire village in Brazil. (The images above and below are sketches of what this could look like.) The intention is that aesthetics can spark some joy, along with pride of place and hope, inspiring broader changes that affect baseline quality of life. As they say:
Visual beautification, job creation and positive attention boost pride and self esteem and help bridge social gaps in a creative and artful manner. The projects create a voice for the inhabitants, influence public opinion and media, and can help to change perception and remove stigma.
What devotees of Maslow’s hierarchy fail to realize is the subtle relationships between the levels. We don’t move up the pyramid in a linear way. In fact, meeting needs higher on the pyramid can inspire someone to apply their energies towards better satisfaction of more basic needs. Joy is not just a result of something positive; it is often also a propulsive force towards more positivity in the world.
As I was close to finishing this post, I came across a piece in the NYT called “Let the Poor Have Fun” that talks about this same phenomenon, of believing joy to be a frivolous extra, as it relates to the adoption of technology. As the author, Manu Joseph, writes:
Too many people presume that what the poor want from the Internet are the crucial necessities of life. In reality, the enchantment of the Internet is that it’s a lot of fun. And fun, even in poor countries, is a profound human need. Quality of life is as much an assortment of happy frivolities as it is the bare essentials of survival. And India is a perpetual reminder that a lot of good — even the somber sociological stuff — can come from people setting out in pursuit of joy.
What the poor want from a technological revolution is probably best understood by watching the way they react to electricity. They do not crave electricity so they can keep newborns warm in incubators. They want it for the simple pleasure.
It seems demeaning to suggest that while the rich are entitled to use technology for our delight, the poor must first cover their necessities before they can experience joy. And it reveals a complete misunderstanding of human nature — a failure to see that enchantment is so often the force that promotes exploration, harmony, and creativity in our lives, rather than the other way around.
The threat to joy is not an obvious one. It’s one that deprives by denigrating — by advancing a belief that joy is not important to our survival, and therefore not essential for all. But if we can say we have universal rights to life and liberty, to health and safety, and that these are worth fighting for, then I also think we need to consider a universal right to joy. Without joy, none of those other rights mean much, for what is the value of a joyless life? We do not have to be happy all the time, nor should we be. But a life without joyful moments is not much of a life at all. If we have a right to be alive, that must mean we have a right to do more than merely exist. And joy is, I believe, at the core of what transforms existing into living.
In a world where joy is a right, there are policy and design implications. Measures of wellbeing would not be sufficient if they only considered physical health and ignore mental states. Charities might aim not just to alleviate physical suffering, but to bring comfort through music, beauty, and humor. We might recognize that the greyness of inner city areas is an issue of equity, just like cramped living quarters and lack of access to fresh food. In short, we might imagine a world in which we choose to propagate joy, rather than constrain it.
Do you think there is a universal right to joy? And if so, what could it mean for the world?