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Happiness and Joy: Understandings and Nuance

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Joy and happiness are not the same thing. Enjoy one – and focus on the other.

Happiness makes a fine roadside stop and a poor destination – at least as far as philosophical categories go.
Happiness’ contingency upon externalities makes it flimsy and precarious. Certain circumstances as defined by us – events, people, things, thoughts – are required. In the absence of whatever we have decided (probably unconsciously) is necessary for us to be happy it gets pushed to a future proposition. “When x happens, then I will be happy.” Happiness becomes a hungry ghost, and we become a slave to forces at least some of which are outside of our control.

Joy is a bird of another feather. Because joy comes from within, it does not require the oxygen of certain external circumstances to survive. Joy is contingent only upon our willingness to experience it. Where happiness is either future-oriented or context-dependent,  joy already “is.” Where we have to “find” happiness, it is as though joy – according to the theologians, mystics and wisdom traditions – finds us.

In psychological terms, we can take “happiness” and “joy” in one of two directions. In one direction, they are more like the difference between emotions and feelings.

Emotions do not last long. At the biochemical level, emotions are the result of a release of certain chemicals in the brain which takes about 90 seconds to flush out. Any emotion that persists longer than that does so because the person is choosing to stay in that emotional loop. This is as true of happiness as it is of less-welcome emotions like anger, sadness, and fear.

The “choice” to stay in a particular emotional loop is the difference between an emotional response and a feeling. Feelings have an emotional component to them, but they are more the result of the interpretations we give our experience. When we hang on to feelings (identify with them, ruminate over them, etc.), we empower them to begin to shape us.

Emotions give our nervous system information. Feelings begin to shape our psyche, and we do well to choose which ones to cultivate in us. In this sense, joy is a choice. A decision. The product of the stories we decide to tell to make sense of our life.

The other psychological distinction we can make between happiness and joy is to see joy as a subset of happiness. Michael McCarthy points out that joy is “intense happiness set apart.” Joy is not the same as fun, delight, or extreme forms of self-centered gratification like bliss, euphoria or rapture.

Joy has overtones of something more – a spiritual quality of sorts. Joy is not a word we use to describe our pleasure at eating the perfect sundae, but we would use it to describe the feelings of a parent who finds a missing child who is safe and well.

Joy, says McCarthy, looks outward – to another person, purpose, or power. Joy signifies a particular type of happiness which is a serious business.

The first thing I notice about these three ways of differentiating between happiness and joy is that happiness starts somewhere outside us and moves in an inward direction. Happiness requires something outside of our control to happen in order for us to experience it. Joy arises within and flows outward – even when it is a response to something that happens outside us. Joy exhibits qualities of creativity, choice and agency on our part.

When it finds you, enjoy happiness for the 90 seconds it takes to flush out of your system. Go ahead and interpret it in ways that turn it from an emotion to a feeling and enjoy that too. But cultivate joy as your birthright. Joy is a stance we can choose – a creative and generous position that may at times fly in the face of the evidence, and one which makes a statement about the kind of life we want to live.


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