The Joy of Philosophy through Public Engagement

As a moral philosopher and one of the leading researchers on joy, I know first-hand how academic philosophy is able to bring precision and clarity to many areas of everyday and public life – including to some of life’s biggest questions. Consequently, even for someone who is dispositionally and vocationally set up to over-think everything, it was a no-brainer that I should submit to the TORCH Pitching Competition, which would afford new pathways for public engagement.

For my pitch, I observed how even as we are transitioning out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are entering into a world darkened by loss and marked by increasing division, and I argued that the response called for is the pursuit of joy. From my research, I knew that joy could deepen our ability to bear and honour our sorrow; and that as a “gathering” emotion joy could well bring us back together. I pitched a radio programme in which each episode would centre on stories by everyday exemplars of joy, which leading philosophers and psychologists of human flourishing would comment on from their work. At the close of each episode would be a practice with which the listener could experiment, in order to cultivate joy for themselves.

Through meetings with Dr. Samir Shah, OBE of Juniper Media and Prof. Abigail Williams, I was challenged with exciting new directions, guidance on the kinds of questions that listeners would find especially compelling, and uplifting visions of what the programme could be. In the end, we settled upon three episodes. Dr. Shah and his production company, Juniper Media, have recently pitched the programme to the commissioner of BBC Radio 4.

The possibility of having a programme I helped to develop on BBC Radio 4 is breath-taking, but the process itself has been just as thrilling. It has been a deeply inspiring and humbling process to work with Dr. Shah and Prof. Williams, whose rich insights, creative suggestions, and understanding of what would be most compelling to listeners have provided me with new avenues for my research: thanks to our conversations, I am now focusing more of my academic work on the connection between joy and mental health, and joy in the digital world – two topics they convinced me were utterly critical. If the programme is produced, I know my work and thinking will evolve even further from the wisdom of its guests and audience – but for now, it is a show I very much hope is made – because as I write this while myself struggling to bear up to our post-pandemic world, I know this is a show I would also benefit from as a listener.


Matthew Kuan Johnson is a moral philosopher, and a Research Fellow of the Faculty of Theology and Religion & an Associate Member of the Faculty of Philosophy. He works on moral perception, virtue theory, and AI ethics, and is one of the leading researchers on joy.

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Image depicts joy written on placards by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash

Joy by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash