Defining Joy - Christopher Lee McElroy M.S. - Living JOYELY Ever After!
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Defining Joy – Christopher Lee McElroy M.S.


Joy is important for our well-being and peace of mind, but what is “joy?” Also, how does this concept differ from that of others in positive psychology of happiness or subjective-well-being? The current review aims to answer these questions and better define what “joy” truly is. In short, it is something that lasts longer and is more visceral than happiness. This review contends that happiness is more of an emotion and joy is more a mood. Next, this review will discuss the neuroscience behind both hedonic happiness and eudaimonic joy. The goal is to try to set a precedent for future research in positive psychology to make a concerted effort to separate the two in both behavioral and functional analysis moving forward. Lastly, joy is something that can be practiced. It could be contended that joy is not necessarily learned but more realized. This can be accomplished through meditative practice which will also be discussed.

Simpler Definition of Eudaimonia: Joy

It seems that most everyone in their lives strives to find some sense of peace, joy, and happiness. With most of the world fixated on the external environment, the hedonic pleasures, to make them happy, it is important to also account for a peace brought about by inner joy. The concept of joy is an entangled one with many other synonyms besides happiness like delight, gaiety, and bliss. The Webster’s dictionary mainly de- scribes joy as a mental state of mind brought about by “. . . success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires” [1]. In that vein, the definition is not very differentiated from happiness, yet most see joy in a different light than happiness. The website has a more unique definition which will be the definition uti- lized for this review as well as the term well-being, in terms of life satisfaction, that will be discussed later:

“Joy is a stronger, less common feeling than happiness. Witnessing or achieving selflessness to the point of personal sacrifice frequently triggers this emotion. Feeling spiritually connected to a god or to people.” [2]

The concept of joy needs to be more well defined, as to allow for accurate study design and assessments for studies about either getting, building, or retaining joy. Aristotle used the concept of eudaimonia, which directly translates to “the state of having a good indwelling spirit.” This eudaimonia is different from hedonic pleasures, which is more in line with the current definition of happiness. Many studies use the concept of positive well-being, or joy and happiness interchangeably. The ancient philosopher Rumi sums up the concept of joy by explaining that “[w]hen you do things for your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy” [3]. In other words, actions taken for your internal peace

and not necessarily for external gratification can have a profound positive cognitive reaction. But many will also contend that joy is a visceral reaction to a profound event. That could be more properly described as the feeling of elation and that could be considered a level of joy. To achieve this elation there needs to be the positive basis of the mood joy as a basis.

The Psychological Definition of Positive Emotions

So, what is the official scientific take on joy? Although it is widely agreed that joy is a positive emotion that is an extension of inner peace, that is a broad definition and doesn’t allow for researchers to have a measurable concept of joy. Positive thought can be broken down into three factors: mood, emotion, and sensory pleasure [4]. Smith and Lazarus (1991) attempt to explain emotion as placing a type of meaning to a preceding event and that external events eliciting pleasure, such as satiating hunger or gratifying sexual desires are more sensory pleasure events, or physical sensations. Although, they can be inherently connected to an emotion [5].

Previous models muddle the definition of emotions with “specific action tendencies” which is the narrowing down the physical response to a stimulus, like the urges fight or flight [4, 5]. A theory that emerged in most recent decades is the “Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions.” A personal well-being brought about by positive cognition is a stable state of mind and could be described as a positive mood. While negative emotions diminish the thought to action ratio, positivity increases the range of responses that accompanies a natural or more positive scenario [1].

There are several cognitive behavioral studies that back this theory. One such study used electromyography (EMG) to evaluate the difference between individuals that dis- play more Duchenne, or genuine, smiles and those that display non-Duchene, non- genuine. The researchers evaluated cognition via attentional breadth and flexibility tasks and found that those with a high occurrence of smiles when given positive cues performed better on these tasks [6]. Another research paper by Jager and Russeler (2016) agrees that there is also broadening of cognition, but contends that there is only a significant change in the non-causal relationship in attentional broadening, not an increase in thought action repertoire [7]. So, overall, there is still not a great deal of consensus on a definition for positive emotion or mood from a psychological perspec- tive.

There is a study that indirectly defines joy in a more effective manner. Hansenne (2021) attempted to answer the question of whether putting a high value on attaining happiness might mitigate the ability to gain happiness, and by placing importance on overall positivity, an individual can have more “well-being” [8]. This is generally mixed in with subjective well-being that measures positive and negative affect, and the broader question on the overall outlook on life. It could also be further described in a similar manner as “assertion motivation,” which is the lack of wanting and, whether it is consciously decided, or intuitively so, remaining in a positive state of mind where there is no goal-directed action being pursued [9].

The A- “wanting,” youth, B- “threat avoidance”, C- “non-wanting,” Model of Happi- ness suggests that “happiness” changes over the course of time and turns into a type of joy in older age [9]. That makes sense, but one could contend that joy, in the terms non-wanting happiness, or well-being, is something that you do not necessarily have to be of a certain age to have, the “satisfaction paradox.” It could also be considered a more “realized” state of mind rather than “learned” and can be attained at any age of life. This is because one does not have to satiate all needs to feel joy, although it is easier to realize joy when necessities are met.

The Neuroscience of Positive Emotion: Joy

The neuroscience on the concept of joy, as it pertains to subjective well-being, a

eudaimonia is not very clearly define. There seems to be a mixing of hedonic hap- piness with a type of eudaimonic of joy, or well-being, in the state of mind that is being tested and measured. This is to be expected, because imaging studies includ- ing functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] and other measurements like elec- troencephalogram [EEG] only give a snapshot of what is going on at that particular moment. It is easier to stimulate a hedonic pleasure than it would be to try to elicit a well-being state of mind. Also, those that are not joyful can experience hedonic pleasures or happiness, although it would be more difficult in many cases. So, there is more behavioral data currently for happiness, because it is easier to collect the data for analysis. This review will try to separate the neuroscience between “happiness”-particularly in the hedonic sense and “joy”-in the eudaimonia or subjective well-being sense.

On the behavioral side of the discussion “happiness” can be characterized and defined in an individual using a very notable questionnaire called the Positive and Negative Affect Scale: The PANAS , there are others that are not as widely used [10]. This PANAS Scale also seems to fall in line with the Kringelbach and Berridge [2011] def- inition of what hedonic happiness is, except this review would argue that overall life satisfaction should not be included in the analysis if happiness itself is the objective of the testing[11].

Neuroanatomy of Well-Being, Joy, and Eudaimonia

Luo et al (2015) applies the word happiness to the overall valuation of the individual’s life. This study utilized a resting state fMRI for brain imaging analysis. This would seem the most accurate way to measure the joy or well-being of someone, because  it measures brain activity without giving a stimulus. The subjects were asked about their overall feeling of their lives in a prior questionnaire, the fMRI imaging showed that, especially the default mode network [DFN], there is increased brain activity in individuals that are depressed and have the common symptom of ruminating. As part of the DFN, these people also had more stimulation in the medial prefrontal cortex [MPFC], the posterior cingulate cortex [PCC], and the inferior parietal lobule [IPL] [12]. This study is imperative to differentiating joy from happiness, because of the lack of stimulus present. It was a study of general well-being not a thought or emotion toward any one thing.

So, what are the functions of these brain areas in the DMN normally? The MPFC has a role in attention, repressing urges, or the formation of behavioral tendencies, and long-term memory. This part of the cortex is connected to several sub-cortical areas such as the thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus which are parts of the limbic system [13]. The PCC is not particularly well understood, but it is well known that it deactivates when doing certain tasks, as it is part of the DFN.

One recent study utilized real-time fMRI with neurofeedback for their imaging anal- ysis of the PCC. There were three conditions being tested in adolescents: focus on breath, a self-referring thinking task, and a rest state. The ‘focus on breath’ task re- sulted in lower activation of the PCC in contrast to thinking about self [14]. This fits with the behavioral model of individuals that are depressed. The ruminating thoughts that are negative and fixated on self would activate the PCC more than would be con- sidered normal. Lastly, the IPL functions in visuospatial processing and taking internal inventory of self as well as evaluating self away from emotion [15].

Neuroanatomy Hedonic Happiness:

Overall, Hedonic happiness hotspots occur both cortically (medial orbitofrontal, cin- gulate, medial prefrontal [which will be contended, at least the ventral portion], and insular cortices) and sub-cortically (nucleus accumbens ventral pallidum, and brain- stem) [16]. Much of these areas are part of networks like the default mode network

[DMN], salient network [SN], and frontoparietal network [FPN].

The SN is composed of several limbic and PFC regions that have a role in control- ling attention from the lower order processing to higher order, and vis-versa control of the development of anxiety via the amygdala, anterior insula [AI], and dorsal an- terior cingulate cortex [dACC] [17]. Interestingly, the AI works the opposite way of the intraparietal lobule [IPL]. Instead of removing the self from emotion, it attaches emotion and is involved in involved with habits and epiphanies [18]. Also, bot the ACC and mPFC, or rather the medial orbitofrontal cortex, work in concert to both evaluate and express adverse emotions and are linked to the limbic system for emotional ex- pression [19]. In several studies, there is a need for better differentiation between the vmPFC and the middle orbitofrontal cortex when conducting fMRI analysis.

Memories are important for learning information and keeping emotional balance. It can also have detrimental effects on our emotional well-being. There are two types of memory: explicit and implicit. For the current discussion the two aspects of explicit memory [episodic and semantic] memory. Episodic memories are those of scenes or events and semantic memory is that of general facts, things that are just known [20]. This is mentioned to illustrate that a stimulus that is being processed into memory includes emotional evaluation. This review will review the incorporation of explicit- episodic memories that is focusing more on incoming visuo-spatial and object recogni- tion information.

The Neuroanatomical Difference Between Mood and Emotion

A very straightforward definition of mood is that it links to how “associative” or “inhibited” our mental processes are [21]. This supports the broaden and build theory discussed earlier [4]. That definition by Bar (2009) also supports the notion that mood regulation is brought about by the inhibition of part of the medial temporal lobe, which includes the amygdala mentioned earlier by the mPFC.

Once an object has been decided to be integrated further into a working memory, generally within 1-2s, other modes of sensory, like auditory, touch, and smell get inte- grated in with the visual information in the inferior temporal cortex [22–24]. This in- formation is then sent to the perirhinal cortex and parahippocampal cortex [PHC] [25]. At this point the information is in the limbic system and is being integrated as work- ing memory, eventually progressing into long-term memory. That is if enough value is associated enough for integration.

By no means is the intent of this review to be a rigorous explanation of memory in total. The purpose of reviewing it to this point is to see what information gets categorized as positive or negative stimulus, which will currently be explained and then see what constitutes a positive emotion [happiness] and a positive mood [joy].

From Stimulation to Evaluation: What makes it Positive?

Once the information is in the medial temporal lobe [entorhinal cortex, parahip- pocampal, and later, the hippocampus cortices], the information is decided to be posi- tive or negative, and to what degree. This is done via the orbitofrontal cortex in com- bination with the amygdala and back to the parahippocampal area, which puts the integrated information into the hippocampus [26]. The packaged multimodal sensory information at this point is then reevaluated by the ventral medial prefrontal cortex [vmPFC] and given a degree of importance via the amygdala again and neural connec- tion are then made in the parietal cortex and other parts of the brain as a network of information, turning the newly integrated information into long-term memory [27, 28]. So, what makes a stimulus categorized as positive or not, and what is the difference between an emotion and a mood in that context? First, the concept of positivity and negativity is provided by OFC and value by the vmPFC [29, 30]. Mainly, this is the

new information being communicated between the hippocampus, or parahippocampal gyrus, to the orbitofrontal cortex for visual stimuli, and the vmPFC for already known information. In other words, the initial visual stimuli are processed via the OFC ini- tially when first seen, likely via the dorsal visual pathway, and then other integrated information is processed via the vmPFC, likely the ventral pathway of visual stimuli and integration of other senses.

In humans, dysfunction of the vmPFC is what is responsible for depression and anxiety, which are mood disorders [31]. Given the present definition of joy in this review, it could easily be inferred that the vmPFC is mainly responsible for that feeling of well- being that constitutes a positive mood. This can be further denoted as the vmPFC is a regulator of internal events while the OFC is the regulator of visually stimulated external events [32, 33]. It could possibly be said that proper stimulation of the mOFC to a transient external event would elicit a happy response, and the stimulation, but not over stimulation, of the vmPFC via proper internal regulated thought contributes to joy.

This neuroanatomical definition of happy and joy seems somewhat counterintuitive. It was said earlier that joy is supposed to be a positive emotion beyond self. Since the vmPFC is involved in satiation and not having an external goal to be fulfilled, the definition of joy still stands. If you are satisfied and do not have an immediate need or goal to fulfill, a feeling of positivity can come from more altruistic behaviors.

It is important to consider that, not only is the PFC a heterogenous neuroanatomical structure, but the amygdala is heterogenous as well. For an extensive review of all the anatomical connections under different circumstances in primates was recently done by Murray and Fellows (2022). Most neuronal connections to the PFC come from the intermediate and magnocellular parts of the amygdala and end on the same side [ipsilaterally] on the PFC [34]. A lesion study done by Murray et al. (2015) on macaque monkeys implicates the OFC projections, likely from D4 receptor having neurons, to GABAergic neurons in the amygdala. This connection of the activated OFC suppresses the activation of the amygdala [35, 36].

Practicing Joy: The Neuroscience of Meditation.

Meditation is the mental and/or physical practice of bringing about well-being. Two popular types are Focused Attention [FA] and Open Monitoring [OM]. The FA meditation is focusing on one object or stimulus for a preordained period, and OM is the basic monitoring of self and being in the present monitoring the here and now [37]. An interesting study done by Brefczynski-Lewis et al. (2007) performed a fMRI on a group of novice meditators with that of expert meditators [10,000 to 50,0000 hours of training]. Both had activation in similar areas associated with attention like the frontal parietal regions, the lateral occipital, insula, thalamus, basal ganglia and cerebellar regions and only the novices displayed negative activation in the anterior temporal lobe [38]. On the illustrations of the brain region activation, it is very evident that there was a lot more activation in several areas of the brain, but what is important to note is that there was not increased activation in the OFC or mPFC, including the vmPFC, in either the expert or novice meditators. More could be taken away from this study if there was a non-meditating control under all the fMRI parameters being tested, but it does show how the brain advances in activation with practice up to a point.

This is supported by a meta-analysis by Boccia et al. (2015) that probed many

studies and revealed that the activation of “self-relevant” information was increased in the precuneus [39], attentional focus for problem solving purposes via the anterior cin- gulate cortex [40], “interoception” and basic needs of self via the insula and refocusing

attention via the angular gyrus [41], and lastly, activations of the region responsible for the “experiential enactive self” which are the premotor cortex and superior frontal gyrus [42, 43]. This shows many of the brain areas associated with well-being or joy. So, with a little training, many individuals can encompass the benefits of meditation the leads to well-being and the capacity for experiencing joy.


The focus of this review is to find a better definition of “joy” and separate that concept from the general concept of “happiness.” Hopefully future research in positive psychol- ogy takes more care in parsing out the hedonic pleasures associated with happiness to those of well-being and joy. In many instances it is a large ask. In experimental settings, it is so much easier to mimic circumstances that would elicit a happy response. Also, in animal studies using non-human primates it is impractical to create a meditative circumstance for the subjects. The closest study reviewed here was one in which sati- ation was the marker of lack of wanting that could be closely interpreted as being like their human counterparts.

It would also enhance the field of positive psychology for future studies that uti- lize meditation to provide behavioral questionnaires like the PANAS, and others, to measure specific metrics pertaining to well-being and happiness. This would be very informative to correlate the functional changes in the brain with behavioral outcomes elicited by practicing better well-being or joy.


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