A universal right to joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

Painting an entire favela in rio de janeiro designboom 01

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.

Painting an entire favela in rio de janeiro designboom 02

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?

February 4th, 2014


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    Discussion (8 Comments)

  1. Brandon Kessler on February 5, 2014

    This blog is so awesome. I’m really glad I subscribed to it.

    If Joy is an evolved human characteristic, than can we call it a universal right in the first place? It evolved into being and therefore by definition at one point wasn’t there.

    A universal right sounds more to me like ‘something we’re all owed.’ Does nature owe us anything? Are we owed jealousy, pain, nausea, love, or an itchy nose? I’d guess there are documented cases of humans who are physically or mentally incapable of experiencing each of those, and there probably are examples of people who can’t experience joy.

    So I guess that puts me in the “no” camp. I personally think the question around what we’re owed is more related to happiness (joyful living), for the differentiating factors that you mention above.

    1. Ingrid on February 5, 2014

      Thanks for the kind words, Brandon.

      It’s an interesting point you raise, about a right being “something we are owed.” Or as you put it, Does nature owe us anything? I’d agree with what I think you’re suggesting – that nature doesn’t owe us anything. We get what we get, and we don’t get upset, as my Dad would say. But I guess when I think about rights, I think in terms not of what nature owes us, but rather what society owes us. Nature gives us many freedoms, such as the ability to move our arms and legs as we please, to dance, to rove across seas and continents. Some of these freedoms we willingly trade for the companionship and security a society offers. But in some societies, or in some eras of some societies, the rights to freedoms are applied unequally: the freedom to drive a car, to live where we choose, to wear what we like, and so on. I’d argue that societies owe equal rights to freedoms to their citizens, and that there is a certain base level of freedom all people should be entitled to unless they abuse it.

      With joy, for me the tension comes with how we live, disconnected from our natures, in society. I think we’ve created a dichotomy between essentials and extras, and that we have wrongly placed joy into the “extras” column. In the same way that psychology for centuries focused only on disorders, rather than on what it takes to truly thrive, I think we have overemphasized the baseline, deciding that satisfying our physical needs is enough. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that we have a need for joy, not just a want. And that most people ignore that need because they see it as merely a desire, akin to the desire for an ice cream cone or a tropical vacation. So joy becomes a luxury, not a necessity, and therefore we can say that some people should feel free to experience joy, but others are shameful for “indulging” in it when they have other “needs” not yet met.

      My thoughts are still forming on this. Thanks for weighing in and getting me to think more deeply about it.

      1. Brandon Kessler on February 5, 2014

        Cool. And what’s such a shame about those who suppress joy or happiness, or feel guilty feeling it, is that joy is pretty much the ultimate emotion. It’s kind of hard to knock… there aren’t lots of people who would say, “Joy – meh.”

        If there were a horizontal scale on which we laid out all the emotions from least desirable to most, joy would likely be on the far end of desirable. And maybe if we created another scale showing which emotion is most influential in society, guilt might be the heaviest.

  2. Sherry Crowson on February 5, 2014

    A right to joy . . . hmm, but how to “grant” that right. It’s an emotion but also a state of mind. You can have so much to be joyful about but . . . if you are not looking with eyes and heart and mind that recognize joy, it will pass right by you. You have to let go of judgment to experience joy, and I know a few people to whom joy is a stranger because they are never looking for it. They are looking to be disappointed, to be frustrated, to be angry. You can have a right to joy but what good does it do if you don’t have the “attitude of joy” that you have so in abundance. And, joy is simple . . . sunshine after day of cloud and cold and rain! There are those who want to complicate it with all kinds of extraneous add-ons, what will the neighbors think, perhaps my students will think me foolish, what will my friend think if I stand there blown away by the appearance of the moon through a wisp of cloud. You have to be willing to open your arms and hug joy to you! There is joy everywhere, even in the poorest of places, because it is part of life. You, your blog, you are helping up the joy quotient in the world because you remind people to look around, to find their joy in little ordinary things, in big beautiful things, in color, in music, just everywhere.

  3. Linda on February 5, 2014

    Here, where I’m writing from this morning snow covers everything and still falls steadily—the beginning of a cold, dreary day. Then I read your thoughts on the universal right to joy and looked closely at the wonderful favela painting project and thought about how “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” and decided that yes, there is a universal right to joy and that the dynamic, action-oriented “yes” it brings with it is what begins a transformation, within or without.

    1. Sherry Crowson on February 5, 2014

      Each individual has to say, “Yes, I have a right to joy!” And would have to live as if joy were natural to the human condition, not a “luxury”. If you have never seen the movie City of Joy, there was joy in a place most people would think of as so wretched as to be beyond anything joyful, yet there it was! I think I agree with Brandon, the heaviest emotion is guilt and the greatest killer of joy. A little guilt is good, but when it becomes so oppressive that joy is nearly smothered, then the concept of a right to joy might help people fight the guilt that so stifles their joy, or fight for the right to define their own joy. So many places in the world, there are governments and organizations that would like to define joy for the whole world instead of themselves. A universal right to joy, if recognized, would bolster people’s confidence in making their own definition of it. I have thought about this a lot today, thanks for starting my day off with such an interesting idea!

      And I love the idea of painting houses in poverty stricken villages, I love that a lot of places with real poverty often have the most colorful houses. My family has for years lived in El Paso, and if you stand where you can see houses on both sides of the border, you will notice the houses in Juarez have always been more colorful, and oddly, as their prosperity has risen over the years marked by better roads and street lights and more businesses, the colors did not fade but grew even brighter and more pervasive. On our side of the border, sand colored houses, white, tan, gold, brown, on their side, turquoise, pink, yellow, deep sky blue, red, orange . . a rainbow of colors. I hope their project brings joy to all the lives it touches!

  4. Christine Adams on February 5, 2014

    I’m very proud to have been one of the contributors to this effort. And I love the result! When I was a kid I remember reading a story in the Reader’s Digest about an inner city neighbourhood which experienced a renaissance when one family made the effort to make their place look better with flowers and paint. It stuck with me. We create joy for others by means of our creativity. We have an opportunity to create a world that is full of joy! Let’s do it!

  5. Mara Zepeda on February 7, 2014

    I don’t know what I believe but you have certainly made the case, Ingrid. And I can’t think of a more articulate, humane, big-hearted advocate for the idea. Brava! And thank you to the person who inspired this post.


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