Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences


Reflections on Joy: A review of Anthropology of Joy Workshop

person stands surrounded by trees, their face is tilted upwards and their arms spread outwards as if to embrace the sky

Ben Theobald, 19th June 2023

Conveners - Joanna Cook and Ben Theobald

Panelists - Dalia Iskander, Iza Kavedžija, Joanna Cook, Joel Robbins and Matan Shapiro

This workshop aimed to establish what an anthropology of joy might contribute to the social sciences. The panel, consisting of anthropologists whose research has incisively investigated questions on human happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing, sought to theorise an anthropological approach to joy. The ultimate aim of developing such an approach was to determine what it might mean to pursue joy, both as a heuristic for analysing ethnographic material, and conceptually, as a nexus point between theory concerning experience, emotion, and deliberation. The theme was discussed over the course of three panels, each beginning with panelists’ responses to pre-circulated provocations. The first panel, titled ‘joy and the cultural patterning of emotions’, was motivated by questions on how joy may be differentially valued according to cultural context. The second panel looked at joy both as a cultivated state, and as a gift. The final panel focused on ‘self-transcendence and social connection’ to consider how joy might relate to human bonding.   

Discussion across all three panels touched on how we might define joy, and how it might be placed alongside similar affective states and forms of experience. In the United States, expressions of high arousal emotions like joy may be seen as ‘authentic’ and therefore highly valued, while in contexts such as in Japan, the overt expression and discussion of emotional states may generally be met with disapproval. This point was raised by Iza Kavedžija, who drew on her fieldwork experience in Japan to describe how emotions like joy find value where they are intuited from relatively low levels of expression. Dalia Iskander also considered the provocations in relation to her fieldwork carried out with miniature model makers in the UK. She described overlapping relationships between joy, awe, and creativity. In trying to parse these various concepts of affect, Iskander described her interlocuters’ encounters with joy, as they worked through an oscillating affective landscape of chaos and structure. In her own attempts to define joy, Jo Cook emphasised the paradoxical circularity of our intuitive notion that ‘joy feels good and things that elicit joy are deemed to be good’, linking joy to the cultivation of ethical values. Iskander offered her own interpretation of this paradox, describing the experience of joy as ‘fractal’ – a type of disorder in which patterns may nevertheless prevail through appreciation, appraisal, and craft. 

Building on the discussion of the definitional questions surrounding joy, its place within broader affective and ethical domains of human life were explored at length. In line with Cook, Joel Robbins assessed joy in relation to ethical values. He referenced the concept of ‘valueception’ to refer to the capacity people have for perceiving through their own, and others’ self-evident emotional states. In this sense, joy can be seen as the motivator inspiring love for certain values, and in turn joy is elicited once values are fully realised. Robbins speculated that the experience of joy then comes about as individuals self-transcend towards particular ideals or values. This perspective reflected Jo Cook’s earlier point that a part of the paradox of joy is its deep involvement with both experiences of self-transcendence and experiences of self-affirmation. Kavedžija offered a slightly different interpretation of the paradox of joy, noting that artists she works with experience significant difficulty and challenge in practices which on the surface appear to be ways of cultivating joy. Rather than finding joy through cultivation, her interlocutors encountered joy spontaneously as their artistic creations reached fruition. 

Considering the potential for spontaneous joy, the idea that joy is unpredictable (perhaps universally so), coming and going to cause surprise and disappointment, was a recurring theme. For Robbins, this was typified by the classification of joy as an extreme emotion, and he speculated that extreme emotions in general could lead people in unexpected directions, and surprise those observing them. Matan Shapiro noted the ephemerality of joy, with its capacity to move from potentiality to reality and back again. Jo Cook gave a concrete example of joy’s unpredictability, noting the inability of psychologists to pin down a single definition for joy, and the difficulties encountered when trying to elicit joy in psychological studies. She also described the divergent senses of joyous experience across religious contexts. Her example compared Thai Buddhism’s sense of joy, encapsulated by feelings of calmness and ‘coolness’ with the overwhelming instances of cataplexy reported by American Christians. This point questioned a notion of joy as universally unpredictable, since the mental factor of piti achieved via Buddhist meditation techniques, can be cultivated and made predictable through continued practice. 

Over the course of the workshop, questions about joy were productively addressed not only through the rich conceptual discussion, but also with frequent reference to situated ethnographic context. Kavedžija and Iskanders’s illuminating examples from Japan and the UK highlighted the complex relations between joy and creativity in the lives of artists and craftspeople. Shapiro introduced the notion of joy as ‘intra-scendent’ – simultaneously drawing on profound instances of human bounding while being experienced in isolation – with this idea keenly realised in his example of a Brazilian Bumba meu Boi celebration. Jo Cook’s comparative account of the potential for joy to be encountered as serene and ‘cool’ as well as intense and erratic drew on US Christian contexts, and accounts from Thai Buddhist monastics to raise fascinating unresolved issues in terms of how joy might be conceptualised across cultures. All of these examples make it evident that questions of joy have the capacity to tap into some of the most prescient debates of the social sciences. What the workshop demonstrated above all, was that an anthropology of joy remains an area of exciting and untapped potential for future ethnographic research, and conceptual exploration.