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Poets and authors write of it, great religious texts call it forth, Beethoven even composed an ode to it — but what is joy, really? Unlike emotions such as happiness and gratitude, joy is perhaps the last major positive emotion left largely unexplored by contemporary psychology and sociology. But thanks to a new project led by Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at U.C. Davis and a world-leading expert on the science of gratitude, that may begin to change. Working with Philip Watkins of Eastern Washington University and an advisory team of psychologists and big data analysts, Emmons has created a roadmap for developing a robust psychological definition of joy and develop a questionnaire to measure and compare people’s reported levels of joy. The one-year project is being supported in large part through a $230,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Far more than being merely a synonym for happiness or gratitude, joy, according to Emmons and his partners, is a distinct emotion: a cumulative experience of unearned goodness that involves a sense of inner rightness, of blessing or favor, and a life that is being well-lived. “We simply cannot understand what it means to be human unless we understand joy,” Emmons says. “Where, when and how it occurs, how it changes our lives, and how it is sustained or thwarted.”

Creating metrics for baseline comparisons regarding an emotion so inherently expansive is crucial to kick-starting the science of joy. To do this, Emmons and his colleagues have developed a 34-item draft questionnaire that parallels the standard psychological scales used to facilitate research on other emotions. (Sample questions include: In the past week, how often did you feel like rejoicing over something? In the past week, how often have you felt like celebrating? In the past week, how often have you felt like frolicking?)

The team will work to develop an agenda for future research building upon their proposed methodological framework, and hopes to produce a special issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology — where Emmons is editor-in-chief — dedicated to new findings on joy.

“Sir John Templeton was intensely interested in the connections between joy and purpose, joy and gratitude, and even joy and the scientific process,” says Kimon Sargeant, the John Templeton Foundation’s vice president of programs. “He and Robert Emmons had several discussions on the topic over the years, making this project an obvious match for the Foundation. Building a solid theoretical framework for what joy is and how it can be measured has incredible potential for helping us know more about joy’s benefits and how joy can be cultivated.”