Joy & Happiness

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June, 2019 

Watching the choral performances of our boys at our signature community events, I see Lucy Warner and Richard Symons as they guide their charges forward.  It’s an amazing sight—Lucy and Richard are aglow and animated, and they are clearly participating in something larger than a verse of “Go the Distance” or “The Little Red Lighthouse.” When a song concludes, my colleagues are not just happy with the boys and for themselves; rather, their faces emanate joy. 

Until lately, I had largely considered happiness and joy to be overlapping; in my facile thinking, to be happy was to feel joy, and to be joyful was to feel happy.  But I recently encountered an essay from the columnist David Brooks, who drew this distinction between the terms:  “Happiness usually involves a victory for the self.  Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self.  Happiness comes in accomplishments.  Joy comes when your heart is in another.”  

When I think about Brooks’ words, I recall many moments of joy in action at Browning: Middle School actors enveloping each other in hugs backstage after one delivered on a challenging scene; unreserved high fives and fist bumps given from listeners to orators after our Tobin Public Speaking Contests this spring; the explosion of cheers from teammates when a reserve player made a jump shot late in a varsity basketball game; the broad and spontaneous smile a Grade Four boy offered to his Kindergarten buddy when the younger guy read aloud.  

It’s important to win victories and to realize accomplishments for the self; indeed, the happiness that emerges from completing a task or meeting a personal goal in academics, arts, or athletics can bring a necessary and deserved feeling of satisfaction and self-efficacy.  But if Browning promoted only this kind of happiness—that is, if we all focused solely on individual achievement—we would miss something important. Indeed, even as we applauded the accomplishments of talented students, wouldn’t we wonder at the narrowness of the experience?

At Browning, we encourage both happiness and joy in our boys. Our mission calls us to help talented boys become personally accomplished, and also to help them realize the core value of purpose:  a deep commitment to something that has value or meaning beyond the self.  We want Browning boys to develop their own skills and capabilities—we want them to be happy—but we also want them to share those skills and capabilities with others. It is important that our guys have the chance to shine as individuals in the classroom and the studio, on the stage and field. Yet it is just as important that our guys become learning partners, community engagers, teammates, mentors, and friends. Transcendence of self, the condition upon which joy is built, is not supplementary to the Browning education; rather, it is a fundamental part of it. When our boys invest emotionally in the success and growth of others, when they build relationships based upon generosity and care, when their hearts are truly in another, they are exactly what a Browning gentleman is called to be.