We often think about joy as an end, something we want to achieve. Happiness is a goal, feeling good is desirable for its own sake, not for what it leads to. But one of the hypotheses behind Aesthetics of Joy is that positive emotion can lead to other things, such as heightened creativity, more fruitful collaboration, and social change.
At the end of an essay on enjoyment, neuroscientist Huda Akil suggests another possible benefit of bringing more joy into our lives: intelligence. The science behind it is still in its infancy, but she speculates that we will eventually discover a connection between pleasurable activity and child neurodevelopment. While playing with her granddaughter Sophie in the park, Akil observes:
On that day in the park, I realized that Sophie knows something essential that we adults tend to forget: Having fun is important! It entails unexpected sensations, novel situations, body contact, and physical challenge (as long as these are not extreme or threatening). I imagine that the motor and sensory stimulation and the ensuing exhilaration are doing something special to her young brain, possibly much more important than reading a book. I know with even greater certainty that playing with her–experiencing the simple joy of being silly and making her happy–is wonderful for my brain.
It all comes back to why we have joy in the first place. If I learned one thing from the Galapagos it is that evolution is not wasteful. These features of our bodies and minds have survived nature’s ruthless selection because they enhance our survival. The capacity for joy enhances our survival by inspiring us to seek out new sources of things that might be beneficial to the continuation of the species: food, territory, social connection, mates, etc. The aesthetic and emotional experience of joy rewards the effort.
Now that psychobiology has started to turn its lens on positive emotion, it will be exciting to see what discoveries they bring forward, and how that may influence how seriously we take the need for play, joy, and recreation in our lives.