An Ode to Joy

In 2011 the South African government, in response to pressure from China, refused to grant the Dalai Lama a visa so that he could celebrate Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday in Capetown. Four years later the Dalai Lama invited his spiritual brother to spend a week discussing joy at his residence in Dharmasala in India.  The resulting book describing that discussion, compiled by Douglas Abrams, is called The Book of Joy : Lasting Happiness in a Changing World


Americans focus on happiness (the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is listed as one of three ‘inalienable rights’ in the 1776 Declaration of Independence)  whereas the Danes relish contentment, but joy is \ bigger than both , Desmond Tutu argues.  “While happiness is often seen as being dependent of external circumstances, joy is not.”  “The ultimate source of joy is within us,” the Dalai Lama agrees.   “Not money, not power, not status... which fail to bring inner peace.  Outward attainment will not bring real inner joyfulness.  We must look inside.” 


The title of the book is insightful : the conscious cultivation of joy within us can lead to long lasting happiness despite the external challenges and traumas of a world that is changing beyond our control.  The reverse does not apply : happiness from an external event, say the purchase of a new car, does not lead to long lasting joy.  An example would be how quickly the elation of a child opening gifts below a Christmas tree can dissipate. 


Both the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama have suffered deeply, and in the midst of pain and turmoil each has managed to discover a level of peace, of courage , even exuberance.  “Discovering joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak,” said the Archbishop, whose prostate cancer has returned. “In fact we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too.  Perhaps we are just more alive.  Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters.  We have hardship without becoming hard.  We have heartbreak without being broken.”


Working with honey bees can bring happiness (and sadness!) but does it reinforce our discovery of and adventure toward, joy?  Paul Ekman, a psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions, and a friend of the Dalai Lama,  has written that joy is associated with a variety of feelings.  My question was if and how those feelings related to beekeeping.  For example …


  • Pleasure of the five senses : initially looking at bees becomes observing them,  gradually we learn to hear and smell them, and it is not unknown for beekeepers to dip drone pupae in honey and eat them.  They taste like chicken!
  • An original feeling of relief at overcoming anxiety and fear can lead to a sense of excitement : there is an understandable apprehension and nervousness as one first approaches the art, science and craft of beekeeping, and as the challenges of keeping bees healthy and alive increase, so does the sense of achievement, which in turn leads to joyful feelings like contentment, pride and delight at having accomplished a challenging task. 
  • Wonder, ecstasy and bliss : the bees never fail to astonish, and the more we learn the greater the amazement until eventually we are transported outside of ourselves and imagine more closely the life of a colony.  This in turn can provoke feelings of gratitude for what the bees offer and a sense of pride at being a small part of this vital process. 



The feelings of joy thus evoked were valued particularly by the romanticists of the nineteenth century, who, as materialism and empiricism became manifest, asked if the sensual can be entwined with the scientific, and of what value is a technology that enriches the understanding but robs the imagination. In the 1820’s Alexander von Humbolt, the Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and influential proponent of Romantic philosophy and science, wrote to his friend, Johann von Goethe, “Nature must be experienced through feelings.” 


A modification is provided by Douglas Halladay, a professor of business at Georgetown University, who adds ‘meaning’ to the equation. Is there a vital difference between happiness and meaning? “Is child rearing a happy task?” he asks.  “Well, yes and no.  Is it the most meaningful role one could do?  Yes.”   Beekeepers find meaning not only in the lessons of the superorganism which is a colony of honey bees but also in making a difference at an individual level to local and global  environmental challenges. 


And joy has a value!  In 1922, Albert Einstein was in Japan having just been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, and not having cash with which to tip the hotel porter, wrote two notes on a piece of hotel stationery, one of which read, “A calm and modest life brings more joy than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” That note was sold at auction in October, 2017 for $1.56 million. 


Ultimately the daunting graphs, tables and technical language with which researchers churn out data-filled reports assessing the perils we face are too often devoid of poetry and imagination. When we obscure the intuitive, sensual feelings that we experience with, say, a colony of honey bees or an exuberant family, we also  obfuscate the feelings of wonder, pleasure, excitement and gratitude that can drive the perseverance needed to find solutions.   As Henry Thoreau asked rhetorically in 1851, “With all your science can you tell me how it is, and whence it is, that light comes into the soul?”


I wish joy and meaning for you, your family and the honey bees this coming festive season.


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my