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Can a Psychopath Actually Experience Joy?

A psychopath's perception of pleasure in others arouses only envy and greed.

Piyapong Saydung/Pixabay
Source: Piyapong Saydung/Pixabay

“Psychopaths do not experience pleasure by empathically responding to the joy in others. Their perception of others’ pleasure arouses only envy and greed in themselves.” —Psychopathy expert J. Reid Meloy. 1

The absence of joy

Having had a mother and sister who both embodied high levels of psychopathic characteristics, I was able to see profound differences in their reactions compared with others. Underneath their laughter and effusive words, they were emotionally flat and indifferent. This was especially apparent in what would generally be considered joyful moments.

Joyful times for me were not joyful times for them. Their facial expressions, tone, and posture revealed disinterest and showed no emotion. As I searched their facial expressions during happy occasions, they never appeared happy. Their loud, boisterous words and gesticulating hands seemed to belie this, but a closer look showed that while they displayed energy—there was no happiness and certainly no joy.

The nature of joy

According to Rebekkah Frunzac, M.D., general surgeon and chief officer at Mayo Clinic Health System, “Happiness is an emotion, whereas joy is more a state of being.” Happiness can fluctuate and change from day to day while joy is rooted deep within.2 World religions have noted that joy has a paradoxical character. It can flourish along with great suffering.3,4,5

Emotional poverty of psychopaths

Psychopathy researcher, Robert D. Hare, discussed the emotional poverty of psychopaths in one of his earliest works, Psychopathy: Theory and Practice. Analyzing the work of various researchers, the conclusion was inescapable: Psychopaths are innately selfish and self-centered and do not have joy because they cannot love others. There is no affectional bonding. He noted research indicating that the two essential features of psychopathy are lovelessness and guiltlessness. He also pointed to research showing the primary features of psychopathy to be a lack of feeling, affection, or love for others.6

Some episodes illustrate emotional poverty and the absence of joy

One day when I was quite young, I had a brief dialogue with my mother about joy that I still remember. We were walking back from a lovely afternoon with a neighbor, and I felt excited by the visit. The neighbor had given my mother many beautiful outfits that were no longer wanted. These were special designer items. But as I walked by my mother's side, she remained unfazed by the fun at the neighbor’s house and her newly acquired clothes. Her face had an empty expression and I asked her if she was happy, to which she responded, “Content.”

I told her how excited I felt for her and explained that it was like “a great big joy in my heart.”

My mother asked, “What does your joy feel like?”

I told her, “It feels like the clouds lifted me up.”

I heard her whisper to herself, “I never felt that way."7

Years later, I invited my mother to her granddaughter’s recital. All attending praised the performance, though my mother remained silent. As we drove back from the performance, my mother sat in the backseat next to my daughter. She broke her silence by pointing out the window, “There’s where I went to Florence’s funeral years ago.” Sitting in the front seat, I turned to my mother and asked, “Don’t you feel joyful about the wonderful performance we heard?” She leaned forward and studied my face for clues as to what was joy. It occurred to me by the expression on my mother’s face that she did not know what joy was.

These episodes, along with so many others that I observed, illustrate the emotional poverty and absence of joy that Hare and Meloy chronicle in their works. These are hallmarks of all psychopaths.

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1. Meloy, J. Reid. (2002). The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc. 75.

2. Tips for embracing joy in daily life - Mayo Clinic Health System. March 23, 2023.

3. Buddhism: Part 1: Happiness; Chapter 5: Transforming Suffering into Joy [5.3] | Soka Gakkai (global) ( February, 2024.

4. Christianity: Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. (1995). The Teaching of Christ. Huntington, IN: OSV Inc. 311.

5. Hinduism: "Joy and Sorrow" (Swami Tyagananda) — Vedanta Society; August 15, 2021

6. Hare, Robert D. (1970). Psychopathy: Theory and Research. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

7. Rule, Winifred. (2013). Born to Destroy. Moscow: Ministry of Health, Russian Federation. 47.

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