The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

March 20, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Signal Importance of Joy

Delight, gaiety, bliss are some of the meanings of joy, according to Merriam-Webster.  Joy and pleasure and happiness are all related but all distinct too.  Joy is powerful in its spontaneity and often exuberant, even when quietly contained.  Pleasure can be joyful but also more measured, mundane.  Happiness involves some of both.    Deriving pleasure from life more often than not is necessary for happiness, but persisting in a state of joy would be quite impractical.  We must make do with passing moments of the heady stuff.  

Joy is undervalued in maturity.  Maybe as we age our brains tend to lose their easy capacity for joy, and part of growing up involves giving up that lack of restraint joy can bring.  We associate joy with childhood and perhaps childishness.  Our joys become our most private moments as adults.    But, however diminished, the capacity remains and can be cultivated.  In his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven–a world-famous curmudgeon–composed one of the most complex, exhilarating paens to joy ever penned.

Paradoxically, our pursuit of pleasure can itself be an obstacle to experiencing joy.  We can become freighted down with effort and expectation, the pursuit of pleasure rendered a source of fatigue, disappointment, suffering.

To me, joy is like a beacon rotating in a lighthouse, allowing you to set a course by the flashes you can make out in the fog.

copyright 2011 S. Anne Johnson



  1. Nice post as usual. Regarding pleasures, most people choose between two extremes. One, the Epicurean approach, the path of progressively increasing pleasures. But neurologically it overloads the brain’s pleasure centers, prohibiting further sensations and depletes the feel-good neuro-transmitters serotonin & dopamine, psychologically it creates inflated expectations and a sense of boredom, physiologically overindulgence in recreational substances creates tolerance phenomenon & addiction. You are trapped on the hedonic treadmill.

    The second approach is the Ascetic way, the path of abstaining from pleasures totally. But pleasures are a blessing in our lives. The lower level pleasures of eating, drinking, sleeping when tired & marital intimacy, the social pleasures of friendship & companionship and the higher level pleasures we get from seeing beauty, hearing music and intellectual pursuits like reading good books are an essential source of human happiness or else life could become a monotonous treadmill grind.

    Thus both extreme approaches do not lead to happiness. The caveat is, to be happy, we could seek pleasures at all the three levels but in moderation and we can certainly indulge in pleasures provided we do not hurt ourselves, our health or others.

    Comment by Prof.V.N.K.Kumar — March 20, 2011 @ 8:25 pm | Reply

    • Thank you very much for the comment. Pleasures, and the capacity to experience them, are a blessing in our lives. Maintaining the middle path requires attention, especially in societies with cultures of excess and indulgence. I do think joy is a particular type of energizing and inspirational pleasure. I find that moments of joy are distinguished in my memory with an extra clarity and they, more than other pleasures, give me hope.

      Comment by SAJohnson — March 20, 2011 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

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