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Ode to Joy 

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Joy is an act of resistance.
That line popped up in a Pandora advertisement, bold as a flourish of herald trumpets in the midst of another winter of discontent at the hands of the Utah Legislature. It gave pause. I wondered: If joy is indeed volitional, could it be called upon to forestall the bouts of anger I feel when the legislators return to the Capitol and begin to scheme?

I was still thinking about how joy might be willed when this headline in The New York Times caught my eye: "Yale's Happiness Professor Says Anxiety Is Destroying Her Students." The article was about Laurie Santos, a Yale professor whose 10-week, online course—The Science of Well-being—has attracted more than 3 million people. Twenty-five percent of the Yale student body enrolled in Santos' in-class version, and her "Happiness Lab" podcast has been downloaded 35 million times.

I spent a few minutes Googling Santos before moving on to "Happiness." I found two types described in the literature—hedonic and eudaemonic. Hedonic is the state of happiness that results from pleasure maximized, pain minimized. Eudaemonic happiness is associated with self-actualization, a subject for another day. Hedonic happiness is subjective. I shrink from sports bars and Twitter, but singing is as pleasurable as a game of pickleball.

I think back to a Sunday crowd of Unitarians gathered to hear Robert Fulghum, a renowned minister, give a sermon. Now in his mid-80s, Fulghum is famous for his bestselling book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. At one point in a spellbinding sermon—to illustrate a point I cannot remember—he began to sing the "Ode to Joy" melody from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony—"La La La La... ."

Finishing, he asked the congregation to sing with him and began the ode again. A few people joined in tentatively. Then, more and more began to sing. Soon, most were singing confidently. By the third time through, voices rose in a triumphal crescendo, eyes welled up. It was a joyful moment sourced in iconic, joyful music. Fulghum's sermon left the Unitarians aglow.

A similarly affecting experience was a concert in Boston in 2004. Peter, Paul and Mary (PP&M) performed for an audience of a few hundred graying Boomers in return for a donation to John Kerry's presidential campaign. The nostalgia in the theater was palpable. A second encore brought the trio back to the stage, and without any introduction, they strummed the opening chords of "Puff the Magic Dragon."

The audience took up the lyrics spontaneously and PP&M yielded: They stopped singing but kept playing their guitars. The audience sang every verse and chorus, word for word. Afterward, they left the theater wiping their eyes, having sung a song about lost youth in the company of the no-longer-young. I don't consider theirs a joyful experience, per se—whereas I think it was for the Unitarians. So, if not joy then, what did the PP&M audience feel? Was it pleasure? Happiness? Contentment? It is an important distinction.

Contentment is the source of joy, the dictionary says, and the denotation of "contentment" describes a hybrid noun derived from satisfaction and happiness. The pursuit of happiness is like peddling a bike into a headwind because of "cultural forces telling us that we are not happy enough," Santos says. We chase one pleasurable moment after another on a hedonic treadmill.

Our happiness is torqued by external events—a TikTok video, an above-average alpine snowpack or a high-handed scheme by legislators—but the resultant change in the level of our happiness is short-lived. We adapt to the upticks or downturns but soon revert to our pre-event state, back on the treadmill.

A final memory illustrates the point. My wife and I took a hot-air balloon trip along the coast of Maine a few years ago. The treetop flight ended in a rough landing, and we became the ground crew willy-nilly, muscling the deflated balloon across a field to a waiting truck. From launch to load, the balloon's hedonic cycle was brief. So were the impromptu singing sessions with Fulghum and PP&M. They lifted my hedonic happiness level for no more than a few hours. I conclude that like a flash mob, joy is episodic—a fleeting, orgasmic moment, a shout, a spike on a graph, an exclamation mark, a texted "w00t" or a spasm of groans. All signal an encounter with a hedonic event. Some bring joy; others elbow joy aside.

Utah's Republican legislators like to meddle in areas congruent with their self-interest. If I could counter the unhappiness they inflict—sweep it aside like a storm clears the pollution from Utah's air—I surely would. In my own self-interest, I would try to jack up my hedonic happiness level on the Legislature's first day and keep it aloft like a kite in a steady wind for the following 45. But could my joy also serve as an act of resistance to the legislators' meddling? It is an attractive idea for these troubled times.

I think Santos might argue that if you want to deploy joy defensively, you must first be grounded in a state of contentment. Achieving contentment is what her many students are seeking. Sleep and exercise help, says Santos. So do mindfulness, writing in a gratitude journal and random acts of kindness. One of Fulghum's kindergarten lessons is: "Live a balanced life—learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some." But it does take work, Santos says emphatically, "because it is hard."

Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to editor@cityweekly.net

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