Turning Pleasures Into Joy

Few pleasures have been readily available to me this week: watching the final sequence of Whiplash as Miles Teller frantically plays a jazz drum solo that perfectly animates the word ecstatic; listening to Brooke Fraser sing Crows & Locusts while reading essays on my phone. These are derivatives of my most enduring sources of pleasure: books, songs, movies.

The above is written in black ink in my notebook because I’m rereading an essay by Zadie Smith titled Joy.  I do not derive pleasure from food like she claims, and do not yet believe that having children affords any special kind of pleasure. (Before you squeeze your face, think properly about what it means to have kids full-time—we all love the cute babies we meet on the bus.) But she likes people-watching, and I’m a first-rate “professional gawker” too.

Is this Joy?
Is this Joy? Image by Magras Mathieu via unsplash

One of the few pleasures living and commuting in Lagos affords me is sitting by the window seat in Danfos to watch Lagosians. Watching the prim sales girl in the morning—with a crew-cut and an heavily made-up face, clutching her pink clutch close to her chest while cat-walking within the limits her high-riding skirt will permit—become a disheveled slob in the evening: back slouched and body slack as she drags her feet home. Or the sharply dressed bank worker  who is the same at morning and at night: tie in hand, face droopy as if he would rather be doing something else. Or the kings of the streets—touts sitting under seedy stalls in the mornings and evenings—who share blunt and crass jokes while waiting for the moment their inner-animals hidden under ripped bodies will be called to action.

For the past two weeks, however, I’ve been a homebody. My range of pleasures has therefore been limited to those stated in that first paragraph, and another that I’ve come to enjoy: texting friends. It’s really a lazy way to live, and my aching muscles testify to that.

An article in The Atlantic[1] states that one of the symptoms of depression is anhedonia. I cannot have anhedonia as long as there are books in this world, therefore, I can never have depression. But this is silly and illogical. Another symptom stated in the piece is an unwillingness to work. Writing is work—at least getting a piece fit for publishing is. I have found that work near-impossible in the past few days. Maybe I’m not free from depression after all.

Talking is work too, and this, perhaps, explains my reluctance to leave the house to interact with other humans—but texting is not work. Texting is like writing that is not work. Now I’m just making excuses. Bottom line is: I’m not depressed; I just have a narrow range of pleasures.

Zadie attempts a description of the difference between pleasure and joy in the essay, as shown below:

“Occasionally the child too is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy and now must find some way to live with daily.”

She claims to have experienced joy on six occasions. It is such a particular list that I’m inclined to distrust it even before reading. I do not share any of the experiences she describes: I’ve never taken a high-inducing drug, never gone to a party to dance with strangers to EDM, and I’ve never really experienced the kind of “falling in love” that makes people do things like scale a fence and risk injury on its account.

The only thing I’ve experienced that seems to fit what she says “…mimicked joy’s conditions pretty well.” And, “…included, in minor form, the great struggle that tends to precede joy, and the feeling—once one is “in” joy—that the experiencing subject has somehow “entered” the emotion, and disappeared” is that which many others reading this post must have experienced too.

It often occurs after a misguided choice of breakfast—usually beans or one of its derivatives, or after eating ill-cooked vegetables, or just the petulant misbehavior of an incontinent belly. The experience is made even better if the belly begins to rumble at a place without easy access to a toilet. (But not so far as to fall into the kind of danger described humorously by Timi Yeseibo here.) The external anal sphincter muscles can then be held in place for just the right amount of time—all the parts of the body in tension—before finding a clean toilet, where the body can be let go to an engulfing relief. That is the first experience my mind associated with the kind of joy Zadie describes.

Of course this is not joy. If it were, I would spend my days longing to hold my shit together for the right moment when offloading it would bring maximum pleasure.

What was C.S. Lewis’s definition of ‘joy’? from :redux on Vimeo.

The description of joy I’m more inclined to trust is that of CS Lewis. In in his memoir, Surprised by Joy, he also delineated between Joy and Pleasure, saying Joy “must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”[2]

Dr. Jerry Root, explains in the video above that Lewis saw Joy as a deep seated longing in each of us questing for its proper object. It is clear that I’m still waiting for this joy. It’s perhaps why I’m hopping from book to book, going back to my favourite writers, watching my favourite movies, texting my favourite people, reviewing/reliving my pleasures, and hoping to be surprised by joy.


1. The Atlantic: Why Depression Needs a New Definiton 

2. The Guardian: Unseen CS Lewis Letter Defines his Notion of Joy  


Featured image by Abigail keenan via Unsplash

7 Replies to “Turning Pleasures Into Joy”

  1. I think these thoughts too and I think of C.S Lewis many times too and this joy issue and John Piper and Christian hedonism and how much harder I need to try to get this joy they keep talking about. At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you..luke 10:21. I read that and I wonder, how do you recognize it when it comes ? How does someone get filled to the brim with it or maybe joy is just calm and peace and not some bubbly fluid that gushes out? Well, those who have so much experience with having joy say that you have to work to get joy. It will not happily surprise you if you are passively waiting for it

    1. When I think of joy, I’m usually thinking more calm-and-peace than bubbly-fluid. But again, Joy seems like the kind of thing that chooses it’s own disguise in spite of the desires of its host. Lewis seems to believe we can only get joy when we find it in the one who is able to give it ultimately, and that our other searches are just for longings which will not last. I’m not sure how much work I can do to get joy. Perhaps this is why I’m hoping to be surprised by it.

      Thanks for commenting Lizzylizabeth. I really appreciate it.

  2. an attempt to convince you that joy can be seeked and gotten from the ecstasy that comes with being loved and cared for will be time wasting. Perhaps, a more subtle version of the argument that might attract your attention is to come to the callous conclusion that “joy is what you say it is” and therefore becomes a relative terms. hence, the variation from person to person, and even continent to continent……….nice one Ife……when you are attached, am convince that you will see joy from another perspective.

    1. I’d like to say joy is what I say it is, but a part of me will always know that that is false. There’s a definite expression of joy, one that I’ve, at moments, come in contact with. I don’t know how much it varies from person to person, but I do know it, or the other life moments that mimic it, are unmistakable.

      As for attachment, I’ll take solace in the fact that when Lewis was describing joy so eloquently in his memoir, he was an unattached man. 🙂 He finally found an attachable Joy, but only after being surprised by joy.

  3. I think that joy can come from a deep-seated contentment fed by gratitude. In that sense, we can cultivate it independent of whether we have the pleasure of books, music, or movies.

    I like what you said about texting being a lazy form of writing. Some of my chats have informed my blog posts. I prefer talking though 🙂

    Lol, like you, I wouldn’t classify “beans relief” as a pleasure. Writing the piece was altogether pleasurable though.

    1. …we can cultivate it independent of whether we have the pleasure of books, music, or movies

      I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Especially how you say “joy can come from a deep-seated contentment fed by gratitude.” I grasp it a little when I look at nature, then it starts to slip away when I realise that “deep-seated contentment” about nothing but life itself is not as easy as it sounds. Maybe I tie these to books because they make it easier for me to cultivate that contentment. Many things I take for granted have only been shown to me as worthy of gratitude by looking through the eyes of others. Well, I’ll return to this again and again. Thank you Timi.

  4. I think peace is quiet joy. But, I have experienced sheer joy that was so overwhelming that I asked God to free me from it for fear I would simply explode. My brother was with me and experiencing joy also. We had witnessed a miracle and the joy came from recognizing and experiencing the unconditional love of God for us and everyone. I realized later that there was no way to know if we experienced the same kind or amount of joy. But also decided it didn’t matter, because whether we had a lake size capacity for joy or a cup size capacity, we each were joy filled to the point of our cup running over. Over the almost 40 years since then I have experienced joy that is different from pleasure or even delight, but never that extreme or prolonged. I have also come to believe that the heart break of deep sorrow stretches our capacity for joy. Sadly, even believing that, I will usually seek pleasure to escape pain, instead of accepting it and letting it hollow me out for joy.


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