CFI Blog

Have We Killed Joy?

[R]ight in this moment, I can’t even remember what unhappy feels like.

–Maggie Stiefvater

I have a friend of a friend who won the lottery. I don’t know if she bought just one lottery ticket or bought a bunch every week, but she won. It wasn’t the Powerball or Mega Millions, but it was definitely enough so that she gave her two week notice and quit her job as soon as she could.

I can only imagine the level of absolute giddiness she must have felt at the moment that she realized that, yes, those six numbers on her ticket matched the six numbers on TV, and she was about to make bags of money. I bet she wasn’t even able to sleep that night because of the “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” reaction she had.

I recently read the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (#aff), and he depicts a scene in which a band of a few homo sapiens has just successfully hunted down a woolly mammoth. In it, he talks about how delighted and joyous that little tribe of our putative ancestors must have been knowing that there was mammoth chow on the menu for the next few days and that they would not starve to death.

I thought about that little vignette in the context of my own life.

How many of those truly whoop for joy moments have I had?

When I was a kid, I had a bunch. I had them almost every time I scored a goal playing soccer. Winning games (not just soccer, but Monopoly, computer games, and the like). Being brought pizza. There were a lot of little moments that could elicit that feeling.

But, somewhere along the way, that got weaned out of me.

I do remember scoring my first high school soccer goal (being a “benchie,” being on the field, much less scoring, was a rare occasion). The other team wasn’t good, as evidenced by my ability to put the ball in the back of the net. So, the celebrations were probably unnecessary, and my coach informed me as much by telling me to act like I’d been there before. After scoring my brace, I calmly jogged back to the center circle and didn’t celebrate or even acknowledge the goal. I never celebrated another goal again. I wasn’t a prolific scorer, mind you, but I wanted to ooze “Of course I scored. What did you expect?”

The joy was gone.

I can think of four times since then that I’ve actually had the whoop for joy moments.

The first was when I got accepted to West Point.

The second was when my wife (girlfriend at the time) said yes when I proposed.

The third was getting married. Particularly because she hadn’t changed her mind in the intervening months.

The fourth was when we found out my wife didn’t have multiple sclerosis.

MAYBE the fifth was when the University of Virginia won the NCAA basketball tournament. After all, I went there for business school, so I do have some affinity for them. I was probably happier when Virginia beat Auburn in the semifinals, because I had a pretty high-stakes wager with a friend who went to Auburn on the result of that game, and, having lost a previous bet in a UVa vs Auburn bowl game, I was itching for revenge.

That’s not to say that I’m not happy. I’m quite happy!

But, I am not joyous.

When I thought about the scene in Sapiens, I thought about other times when I’ve seen people experience that level of joy.

Kids experience it all the time.

Adults rarely do.

It most often happens in sports. The team that wins the World Cup. The team that wins the Super Bowl. The team that pulls off the unexpected upset (2018 UMBC beating #1 seed UVa in the NCAA basketball tournament is the consummate example of that to my wounded fan pride).

I have friends who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’m willing to bet when they got to the summit, they experienced that joy. They probably didn’t have enough oxygen to whoop, but, deep down inside, between gasps, they felt that joy.

Maybe when you get the job offer that you really wanted when you graduate from school. Getting into the school you wanted.

The first time.

The next job doesn’t bring that joy.

Grad school doesn’t bring that joy.

Getting married brings that joy.

But, what else does?

Are we so focused on buying that shiny new toy for ourselves that we forget to experience joy?

Trying to get promoted?

Running faster in the rat race?

Scientists haven’t even really studied extreme joy. A search on Google Scholar turned up results like:

These values are reinforced by the Chinese adage “le ji sheng bei,” translated as “extreme
joy begets sorrow,” and is a caution against strong positive emotion


Extreme joy, too, may lead to certain primitive actions.

Since when did joy become so bad?

Why not live your life with the goals of extreme joy?

How bad would it be to have that lottery moment in your life, when you can whoop and holler (yes, I was born in the deep South) with absolute glee?

Aim for it so you can achieve it and prove those Google scholars wrong.

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John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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