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Day 5: Happiness versus Joy

October 19, 2023

If I asked you what you wanted out of life, would you be more likely to say “I just want to be happy” or “I just want to be joyful”.

Does it feel like there’s a difference?

To me, it feels like there is but I don’t fully understand it. That’s sort of what this blog series is about – my effort to figure it out.  

What is happiness?

When I first started my podcast, back in 2018, I recorded an episode where I tried to explain what happiness is. At the time, I commented on the fact that it was easier to find usable information to explain the universe than it was to explain happiness.

Today, I’m turning to Brené Brown and her book, “Atlas of the Heart” for help. In the book, Brown explains dozens of key emotions and shares her research on their meanings. 

Here’s what she has to say about happiness: “… there’s really no consensus in the research when it comes to defining happiness.”

Hmm. So one of the world’s leading researchers on emotions struggles with this one too.

She goes on to say that happiness has, over the years, been used as the word to describe a whole array of positive emotions and that’s partly what has contributed to the confusion. On top of that, we’ve tended to look at happiness as more of “trait” than a “state” – making it reliant, at least in part, on your genetic makeup and personality rather than something that exists in the moment and is changeable.

Perhaps that’s why so many of us talk about “just wanting to be happy”. Theoretically, that says something about who we are at our very core. 

But Brown goes on to say, “We need happy moments and happiness in our lives; however, I’m growing more convinced that the pursuit of happiness may get in the way of deeper more meaningful experiences like joy and gratitude.”

This comforts me.

It helps me see I’m probably on the right track, trying to see beyond the pursuit of happiness to understand what life would be like if the goal became “the expression of joy”.

So what the hell is joy and how is it different from happiness?

What is Joy?

This one seems simpler. Brown says, “Based on our research, I define joy as an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure and appreciation.”

Here’s how I see the difference:

Let’s say I have a pleasurable experience…

Happiness is usually the emotion I’ll link to the elements of the experience in a “this-makes-me-happy” sort of way. 

So my attention is on the experience not on myself.

When I experience joy, my attention goes somewhere else. The experience connects me to myself in some deeper way. 

For example, eating Maltesers can “make me happy” because they taste nice and I experience pleasure whilst eating them. The feeling is linked directly to the experience and dies away immediately afterwards.

I can’t experience joy from eating Maltesers because they don’t connect me to something that holds deep personal meaning for me. 

On the other hand, laughing with my children – genuine belly laughs whilst looking into each others eyes – never fails to spark joy. 

And then, as Brené Brown’s description pointed out, joy has appreciation built into it. 

So, for me, that’s one of the key differences.

Happiness doesn’t track itself inwards and connect itself to something deep within us. It exists fleetingly and in response to something external.

There’s another important difference – and within that difference lies the potential to change how we experience life – but today’s blog is long enough so I’ll leave that for tomorrow. 

I hope you enjoyed my very high-tech graphics and I’d love to know where today’s blog took your thoughts on your own experiences of joy and happiness.

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