Are joy and happiness two words for the same thing? We tend to use these words interchangeably, yet they are different in significant ways. Happiness is a good feeling that rises and falls in response to events and occurrences. In this way, happiness is a relatively short-term emotional state based on personal gratification—how these events make us feel. Other events drive away happiness, making happiness a volatile emotion. Whatever makes us feel good brings happiness. What makes us feel bad produces sadness.
“Happiness is finding a pencil. Pizza with sausage. Telling the time. Happiness is learning to whistle. Tying your shoe for the very first time.” – Excerpt from the song “Happiness” by Clark Gesner, from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, 1967.
Joy is linked to our personal relationships rather than events. Compared with happiness, joy can be stronger, more enduring, and more stable. Joy is rooted in the positive feelings we have toward others, increasing as the quality of our relationships increase. It inspires our most unselfish desires. In other words, joy redirects our inward focus toward others.
“Who is the happiest of men? He who can appreciate another’s merit, and can enjoy another’s pleasure as if it were his own.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German author, philosopher. Goethe: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem, translated by David Luke, p. 130.
Because joy is rooted in relationships, I suggest that, with all due respect, Goethe was describing joy rather than happiness.
Happiness and joy are entwined, making it challenging to see them independently. While happiness can come from joy, joy does not always arise out of happiness nor does it rely on happiness. This is why sadness and joy can coexist during the most disappointing and emotionally-challenging times like sickness, layoffs, and funerals. Joy allows us to see these situations in the context of a bigger picture.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” – Bible, James 1:2-4 (NIV)
I attended many funerals before resolving the paradox of laughter and smiles at funerals or during other moments of grief. How callous can people be? Then again, maybe this was their way of coping with grief. Over time, this seemingly strange behavior started to make sense.
“That bells should joyful ring to tell A soul had gone to heaven, Would seem to me the proper way A good news should be given.” – Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) American poet. “Joy in Death”, Emily Dickinson Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series, by Emily Dickinson, p. 181.
My grandmother’s and grandfather’s funerals were bittersweet. Stories, laughter, and tears were on the menus in both 1997 and 2002. Everyone had a lifetime of tales to relive during our short time together. At Grandpa’s memorial service we even did a visualization activity where we closed our eyes and Googled our memories using words like “burnt toast” and “Chumley” that had special significance to us. (I peeked just in time to see the smiles on the faces of my siblings and cousins.)
What I understand today better than ever is that the smiles were not signs of happiness. Proof of this was the tears of grief. The smiles were evidence of joy from the relationships we treasure now and always.
Joy is a Choice
We choose joy, not by flipping a switch—rather by choosing our values, choosing to seek our purpose, and choosing our relationships and how we develop them. Joy is the fruit of a positive attitude, good character, and other aspects of professionalism that develop positive relationships. Joy, as well as happiness, depends on these and other choices made consistently over time.
“We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.” – Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) Lebanese-American artist, poet, writer, philosopher, theologian.
If the right choices lead to joy, it stands to reason that the wrong ones can stand in the way of joy. We choose our friends, what goes into our minds, the places we go, the ways we use our resources, and the ways we treat people. The wise person will consider these types of routine choices and the ripple effect they have on attitudes, intentions, and joy.
“The excursion is the same when you go looking for your sorrow as when you go looking for your joy.” – Eudora Welty (1909-2001) American author, photographer. The Wide Net.
Pleasure is an even poorer substitute for joy than happiness. In fact, it can be so alluring that the desire for joy gets lost. Like happiness, pleasure should be a companion of joy, not a replacement.
“I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.” – C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) author, essayist, Christian apologist. Surprised by Joy. “Joy is not in things; it is in us” – Richard Wagner (1813-1883) German composer, conductor, theatre director, essayist. Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book, p. 164, 1923.
What is it about joy that makes it important? Joy is an outcome, one of life’s best, measures the integrity of our relationships. Here are five things I’ve learned about this subject:
o – It’s easy to confuse joy with happiness and to focus on the wrong things. o – Joy is stronger and more durable than happiness, sadness, even death. o – Joy is all about relationships. o – The quality of our relationships determines the depth of our joy. o – Joy is meant to be shared.
“A joy shared is a joy doubled” – Attributed to: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) German author, philosopher.
Think of happiness as your pleasure and comfort barometer. Think of joy as your relationship barometer.