Marie Kondo urges us to determine if our belongings “spark joy” when we tidy up our spaces, hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent on books and videos that offer to increase our happiness, and its pursuit is considered so essential to living that it was valued as highly as life and liberty in the United States Declaration of Independence. But how well do we really understand what we are pursuing?
The words happiness and joy are often used interchangeably and are listed as synonyms in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. However, while these two terms are similar, there are a few subtle but important differences in definition and in nuance.
The dictionary defines happiness as either a state of well-being and contentment or a pleasurable or satisfying experience. It defines joy as the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, or by the prospect of possessing what one desires as well as the expression or exhibition of such emotion. These definitions sound very similar, and they overlap in some ways.
Both emotions are positive emotions that relate to a feeling of well-being, but each carries a slightly different tone.
The root word of happiness is hap, meaning luck. It is the same root word as hapless and haphazard, and it implies an element of chance. Happiness is that rush you feel when you get that new job, when that special person says the “right” thing, or even when you take a bite of your favorite treat.
Unfortunately, happiness, like luck, is fleeting and the rush often fades before we are ready for it to go. We may desire it, we’ll definitely pursue it, and we might even figure out a way to buy happiness, but we can’t hold on to it forever.
Goals and happiness frequently intertwine. We tell ourselves we will be happy when we get that job, land that next book deal, buy a house, or finally get our dog trained. Once we achieve our goals, we feel happiness until the next set of circumstances comes along to pop that bubble. We then begin to seek a new goal; a new source of happiness.
Happiness is a more conditional and externally driven feeling than joy. It’s a feeling you experience as it’s happening, and it typically depends on the people and things in your environment. This is why it is so fleeting and also why it is so effective at spurring us forward.
Happiness is too fragile a feeling to exist in the same space as sadness, anger, or fear. When the new job falls through, that special person fails to contact you, or when that treat turns out to be unpalatable, your moment of happiness disappears, like a popped bubble.
The word joy comes from the Old French word joie, derived from the Latin root gaudere, to be glad or rejoice. There is no luck involved in the root of this word, and it is not a product of chance. It is simply the state of feeling joy.
Joy is an internally driven emotion that is not dependent on our surroundings. It is a result of our own inner peace and our satisfaction with who and what we are. People find access to their inner joy in many different ways. Joy can be inspired by understanding and working toward a meaningful purpose in life, by connecting to nature, or by connecting deeply with our spiritual beliefs.
While happiness is frequently tied to the outcome of goals, joy is more often found along the journey, as a byproduct of seeking our goals. Joy is also closely related to gratitude and mindfulness. When people cultivate a feeling of gratitude and appreciation in their lives, they often report feeling more joyful.
Joy is pervasive enough to be felt in conjunction with other, contrasting emotions. We can be joyous about our performance in a competition, even if we lose. We can feel the joy of your connection with a loved one, even as we mourn their loss. External circumstances may cause happiness to appear and disappear like a capricious Cheshire Cat, but once established, joy remains.
Best-selling author and inspirational speaker Danielle LaPorte likens moments of happiness to rising bubbles, and joy to ever-present oxygen. Happiness is a feeling that flows through you, sparkling and effervescent; joy is an emotion you carry with you. Both are essential for your mental resilience, and we can cultivate both.
The pursuit of happiness and the hope it engenders spurs us forward, whether that be to a new television series, a new romance, or an alternative career path. The sense of joy that we carry with us helps us to more deeply appreciate those fleeting moments of happiness and gives us strength when happy moments are harder to come by.