3 Ways to Differentiate Joy & Happiness


What’s the difference between happiness and joy? And should we value one more than the other?

Happiness is defined as “a feeling of pleasure of contentment;” whereas joy is defined as “a feeling of great pleasure.” So, that doesn’t help much… Maybe it’s better to work our way there a bit at a time.

Happiness is good, but it’s not the end-all, be-all

I can think of plenty of times when I feel happy. I’m happy when my favorite teams win, like a Chicago Cubs victory. I’m happy when I enjoy a favorite meal — like a fine Chipotle burrito. I’m happy when I get a restful, solid night’s sleep. There’s nothing wrong with feeling happy!

The potential problem is if I stake my whole welfare on these types of things. What if the Cubs and my other favorite teams lose? What if I’m traveling or staying somewhere where my favorite foods are unavailable? What if I need to stay up late or get up early for some important reason? My happiness potentially decreases in these circumstances. If my life is too dependent on finding happiness from such externals, then things can get rocky. There’s some conventional wisdom that suggests the purpose of life is to be happy, but this is risky business.

Our lives can find a deeper, stabler foundation when they’re built on something more substantial: an interior disposition that doesn’t change according to circumstances. Having likes and interests in things of this world is perfectly fine, as long as the roots of our well-being run deeper.

Joy is that something deeper

Let’s consider love. Love starts as a feeling — when we first fall in love with someone, we experience it as an exciting and pleasurable thing: butterflies in your stomach, warm and fuzzy feelings, a racing heartbeat. As love grows and deepens, love perfects as a decision — mature love is about deciding that you love someone unconditionally, in a way that transcends any fickle feeling or the ups and downs of daily life. It’s an interior movement that won’t change when the externals change, or even when feelings change

Happiness and joy can be thought of similarly. When I was younger, I would live and die by the successes and failures of my favorite teams. When they lost, I was down in the dumps; when they won, I was ecstatic. Either way, these were superficial, extreme feelings. Now, as an older (hopefully wiser) person, I view my favorite teams differently. I see past the results to the essential aspects — sports invite us into community; sports showcase the gifts of extraordinary athletes; sports give us low-stakes trial-runs at processing loss and celebrating triumph. 

Ultimately, the wins and losses fade away, and the deeper, more lasting lessons uplift me because of the perspective I’ve gradually gained. My favorite sports teams used to bring me happiness — and plenty of sadness — but now they more broadly and deeply bring me joy.

Happiness is like a plant that just sprouted — the roots are short and brittle, so just a bit of wind or rain can wash it away. Joy is like that robust tree that’s grown for ages — the roots reach deep and wide, so there’s not much that can move it.

Joy comes from discernment, self-knowledge, and answering your calls.

It’s difficult to experience something more deeply seated than happiness if you don’t understand who you are and what sparks passion and excitement in your heart. Happiness often comes from things we like superficially; joy flows forth from those things that nourish our very being, down to our soul.

The best way to get at joy is to reflect on yourself and ask, “What are my greatest gifts and passions?” Chances are, if you identify those gifts and passions and put them at the service of others and your community, you will find that deeper feeling of joy.

How can a Chipotle burrito and a good night’s sleep bring me joy? Often, I go to Chipotle with my daughter on my stay-at-home-daddy days when I want to take her for a low-key date. Munching into that perfectly grilled, expertly marinated chicken definitely makes me happy; looking at my beautiful daughter as she chomps on a little quesadilla affirms the joy of my call to fatherhood. And when I bring her home to our freshly purchased first house, tucking her in and heading to my bed to get a good night’s sleep also makes me happy. But it’s the peace of having my wife and daughter safely together under the roof of our family home that ignites joy.

As I grew up, my gifts and passions helped me discern God’s call for me to fatherhood, marriage, and family life, and my wife helped me understand and answer that call in love. If you can find time and space to reflect, you can dig below the surface of your happiness and find the things that root deeper joy.

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