Joy is the state of fulfillment and happiness that usually occurs when we achieve goals, see a desire fulfilled or a need satisfied. It is characterized by specific expressive patterns – such as smiling – and physiological patterns, such as accelerated heart rate and increased arousal.

The aspect that makes joy so attractive and important is its driving force. This emotion, in fact, with the energy and the state of activation that is able to arouse, pushes us to achieve our goals. It seems that this very aspect may have led man in the long process of evolution of the species. In support of this hypothesis, some studies have found that satisfaction and fulfillment for the conquest of a victory contribute to increase self-efficacy and desire to do.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, noted, for example, that positive emotions seem able to produce three important psychological consequences:

  • Strengthen attentional and cognitive abilities, including memory, creativity and learning;
  • Fostering global analytical skills, or the ability to see not just “the tree but the forest,” predisposing one to a comprehensive view of things;
  • Improving resilience, or the ability to cope flexibly with situations of danger and stress, generating greater self-confidence.

In short, being happy is a virtuous circle: the more positive emotions we experience, the more we become able to achieve our goals and tolerate stress. When we overcome stress well, psychophysical well-being also increases, and so we experience more positive emotions and the process begins again.

Thanks to studies conducted on positive emotions, it has been realized that joy and happiness affect mental health and longevity. On the contrary, the perception of not being able to control stress and feelings of hostility towards others would be related to lower overall well-being.

A study conducted in the 1930s appears to pioneer this important finding. Briefly, a group of young nuns (a homogeneous group in terms of lifestyle and diet) was asked to write a short autobiography. These writings were recently analyzed, considering the type of emotions expressed by the authors. What emerged was a strong correlation between the amount of positive emotions and the nuns’ longevity. Ninety percent of the nuns who had expressed more positive emotions were still alive at age 85, while only one in three of those who had expressed fewer positive emotions were. So, although there is no universal rule or magic formula for being happy, studies seem to converge on the idea that experiencing positive emotions is good for you and helps you live longer.

Are happiness and joy the same thing?

Distinguishing clearly between joy and happiness is not an easy task. In fact, these terms are often used as synonyms or considered interchangeable. Many other factors then come into play, including cultural factors or personal meaning. Daniel Kahneman and Jason Riis, respectively professor and researcher of Psychology at Princeton University, have distinguished two dimensions of happiness: the experiential and the evaluative.

The former includes transient psychological conditions, such as brief positive emotions related to contingent situations of well-being and gratification. The second includes global evaluations, such as the perception of the quality of life and autonomy, the control of one’s actions and decisions, and for this reason it concerns more persistent and lasting sensations. Antonella delle Fave, professor of General Psychology at the University of Milan, wanted to see in this distinction the discriminating element between joy and happiness. The former is short-lived, the latter more stable and lasting.

Another emotion different from joy, but in some ways similar, is euphoria. This is “one step above” in terms of intensity and physiological and psychological activation. Experiences of this kind can be experienced following episodes of success, or even in falling in love or after the intake of exciting substances or drugs. For individual characteristics, then, it can happen that you can stay in this state for a prolonged time and the person struggles to “climb the gear”. In this case, the state of arousal may interfere with the performance of normal daily activities. If this happens, it may be helpful to try to understand the underlying psychological meanings.

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