Joy vs Happiness

Happiness and joy are two different things.  Happiness depends on happenings, the events and circumstances in our lives, and is fleeting.  One thing we all learn is that no one can be truly happy all the time, as none of us are immune to bad or sad things in our lives.  What we can learn is that Joy is deeper and can last forever. 

Let’s explore this idea of Joy vs Happiness:

  1. Self:  let’s be honest, most of us spend most waking hours, and often many sleeping hours, thinking of ourselves.  This isn’t bad – we view life though our own eyes and experiences, control our decisions and actions, and ‘me’ is the only actor we get to be in the ‘play of life’. Happiness is a victory for the lead actor in our play – we are happy for that promotion, our kids report card, our team winning or when someone is kind to us.  Joy can transcend self – and is akin to love. We feel joy when we know the love of a spouse or child, or a feeling of belonging or security – this feeling isn’t fleeting, but deep-set and permanent.     
  2. Time:  if you seek to be happy, then you will always be moving from here to there – seeking happiness.  Disney claims to be the happiest place on Earth, and while fun, you can’t hang out at Disney every day – you must move on to find new happiness.  The feeling when you get a new car or pair of shoes fades over time, and we need new things to make us happy. Joy is being here, and still, and at peace with what you have – not chasing.  
  3. Types of Joy: there are many different manifestations of joy that I have experienced in my life. Emotional joy comes when I spend time with my kids, when I have fellowship with friends, when I hug my wife.  While a football game, or activity can make me happy, joy comes from things unsaid and connections long in development. Physical joy is the experience of a team working harmony, or physical intimacy and connection – and much different from a temporal happy moment of a high five or kiss.  I also believe Spiritual joy is part of a full life. We are built with a need to connect with something much larger than ourselves, the love of the divine, and when I connect with my Maker in prayer and deep-set belief, it brings me joy.
  4. Western worldview: the US was founded with a mission, our ‘pursuit of happiness’2.  I am a product, and understand the power, of capitalism and meritocracy that reward a select few over others based on how they perform in achievement and earnings.  Certainly, physical possessions and money can bring us happiness, but only to a point.  A Daniel Kahneman study3 shows that earnings over $75,000 do not make us happier.  While you may find that hard to believe, the point is that our Western worldview has conditioned us to believe that money, power and status bring us happiness.  Some of the most joyful people I have ever met – some ‘disabled’ or ‘poor’ as defined by society – are among the most joyous.
  5. The Science: Arthur C Brooks3 wrote about happiness and joy and believes between 44-52% of happiness comes from our genes, 10-40% is based on our circumstances and 8-46% based on our habits.  Part of the variation on the stuff we can control, our habits/behaviors, is that we quickly get used to our circumstances (physiological homeostatis) – so even when we get new things, happiness wanes as we get used to the new state. Our shot at Joy is focusing on habits that transcend self – areas of faith, family and friends, all with an underpinning of love, are the essence of breaking though the uncontrollable and getting off the ‘treadmill’.

Now let’s consider a few lessons I have learned about how to bring more Joy into your life:

  • Get outside of yourself: I have found that caring for others, versus myself, brings more joy.
  • Take responsibility: those who take responsibility for their lives are more joyful than those who constantly blame others or ‘circumstances.’  When we ‘own’ our joy, then we can start adding to it.
  • Be Thankful not Wishful: is a goal I set for myself the last two years, working to relish the blessings I have, versus wishing or hoping for other things.  The great Stoic, Seneca said it well; ‘A wise man is content with his lot, .. without wishing for what he has not’.
  • Simplify desires: satisfaction may be defined as what we have ÷ by what we want. To seek Joy the trick is reducing the denominator, focusing on the few things that bring true Joy, not seeking more to have or having a bucket list of desires.
  •  Watch what you watch: to increase Joy we should arrange our lives so that joy is natural and sin and greed are not.  While I enjoy movies with action or locker room humor, and the evening news – I have come to limit the quantity and time of day I consume those things.  Our brains need to process what we put into them, via what we read and watch, so consider the connection between the joy you feel in your soul, versus the content you see and hear. My (unscientific) finding is that joy, and what you see and read are very closely related.
  • Be present: Satori is a Zen concept that teaches attention on resting in the present moment, allowing the body to become alert, relaxed allowing emotions to be free and open.  After moving 15 times as a kid, I find it hard to not seek new places and adventures.  Experiencing novel things makes me happy, but I have learned that what truly fills me with joy are the simple things in life; the Satori of being present in the moment, versus always moving to something. Our greatest blessings in this life are within us, or just within our reach, if we pay attention them.
  • Stop: Nathaniel Hawthorne likens joy to a butterfly that ‘when pursued is always beyond your grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you’.

I am a student of the lessons Jesus taught, and He often spoke of joy and how to ‘rejoice’, even the idea that you can have sadness and joy at the same time5.   Happiness (or sadness) is often an emotional response, a reaction to some external thing, akin to a laugh at a funny joke.  It can be sought, and fun – but is often shallow and fleeting.  The cool part of Joy is that it becomes part of you when developed and nurtured; it is not something you just feel, it is who you are.  I feel a sense of calm, peace and joy when I do the things above – and with practice believe Joy can be part of each of our natures – forever. 

  5. 2 Cor 6:10