The affect theorist Silvan Tomkins lists joy as one of his positive, innate affects. His affective systems should not be confused with the drive systems (sexual, hunger) of psychoanalytic theory. Ruth Leys explains that Tomkins’s joy, like other affects, is activated by new, extended, or terminated experiences. For example, joy may occur when one encounters a friendly face, when a person revels in long hours reading a favorite book, or when distress or fear has subsided.

From a psychological perspective, joy coincides with the pleasure sensation. The relationship, however, is corollary not synonymous. Joy loops through what Tomkins calls the affect and feedback systems. Feedback works between the central nervous system, memory, motivation, and the like. The human feedback system increases pleasure or, for example, causes the individual to act in such a way as to reproduce joy at a later time. Conversely, humans learn to avoid pain or sadness through the feedback mechanism, which may also result in joy. A human may even forgo a lesser joy to avoid a later and greater pain and potentially gain greater joy. In addition, one may see joy used to counteract another affect such as fear, grief, or sadness. An individual troubled by the loss of a loved one may seek out a joyous activity to negate the negative feelings. Although joy and pain are described as separate entities, they are not always mutually exclusive. Ultimately, joy coincides with the psychological imperative to maximize pleasure.

In its maximization, joy manifests unique physiological properties. Affects, unlike drives, generally do not restrict themselves to specific physiological sites. The site of the sexual drive is obvious to us all, whereas joy does not restrict itself to a particular place on or in the body. However, Tomkins writes, “In man, excitement or joy is the response of organs just as specific as those which vibrate in the purr but the activation of affect rewards and punishments is equally possible through the distant receptors or from central sources—from memories or from ideas” (Tomkins 77). In other words, the positive affects, including joy, may physiologically occur or be satisfied anywhere. In fact, the cause and result of joy are one in the same: joy causes more joy. Although no single part of the body monopolizes the cause and effect of joy, it has a peculiar relationship to the face, particularly the smile. Tomkins considers the smile as the innate stimulus of joy. Tomkins also associates joy with excitement. One could certainly argue that excitement does not exclusively accompany joy. Many stimuli indeed excite negative affects: a baseball to the head may induce rage or an umpire’s bad call may incite an angry home team mob. Joy and excitement, however, share activation from an external stimulus. Indeed, human beings may be the sole source of joy for other human beings.

Although one might describe joy as a personal affect, occurring and originating solely in one’s own body, affect theorists often trace its origins to the environment. For example, a child’s joy at moving a ball may amplify when recognizing the mother’s simultaneous pleasure. This leads Daniel Stern, a childhood development psychoanalyst, to argue that the child’s joy, like other positive affects, has been learned through mutual interaction with the mother. Stern argues that even a self-motivated joy from a memory or idea stems largely from an imagined other. This “imagined other” echoes Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” an intersubjective, “inner-person” who helps determine the propriety or impropriety of social affects. In Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, joy mainly plays a role in the interpersonal socialization of sympathy. To Smith, the greatest sympathetic joy, when unhindered by envy, outweighs the greatest sorrow because one can never fully know the pains of a sufferer. On the other hand, Smith argues that one cannot sympathize with a joyous man without entering completely into his joy. To sympathize with a man joyously dancing requires the observer to join. Otherwise, the viewer simply views him with “contempt and indignation” (Smith 56). To experience another person’s joy demands co-participation in the affect. In the “age of sensibility” in which Smith wrote, joy and other affects never simply originate in the personal subject, a point that Adela Pinch specifically argues in her book Strange Fits of Passion. Not only does joy exceed one’s own subjectivity, more recent affect theorists suggest that joy and other affects even transcend limited linguistic labels and names.

David A. Garner

Works Cited:

Leys, Ruth. From Guilt to Shame: Auschwitz and After. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007.

Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Tomkins, Silvan. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008.