In everyday usage, the words “happiness” and “joy” are technically interchangeable in the English language. While joy is not a word I hear in everyday conversation, when it is used, it seems to be the superlative of happy. In reality, however, their etymologies suggest they’re quite different, and knowing the difference can help us to cultivate more of both.
The usage of the word “happiness” dates back to the English of the 1300s, and derives from “hap” meaning luck or chance, and happenstance, or a happy feeling resulting from the circumstances, luck, or lot one is currently experiencing. For this, think “happy camper.” Happiness is therefore a feeling, dictated by external, temporary circumstances, like when sunshine makes you happy, or you’re happy to see someone. Because of the responsive, reactive, conditional nature of happiness, I would argue that you could technically buy happiness—a temporary, fleeting feeling of satisfaction. In this way, happiness is finding a $20, enjoying a delicious dessert, or retail therapy. It is an opportune moment, a fortunate event, or a cheerful happening.
While joy technically comes from the French joie and Latin gaudia, meaning rejoicing, I think the newer usage inspired by Marie Kondo’s use of “sparking joy” is more helpful in creating a useful distinction. When Marie Kondo is asking us which items “spark joy,” she’s actually asking which items spark tokimeku in the original text, which in Japanese literally translates to a flutter, a throb, or a palpitation. She’s asking us which items we have such a strong connection and relationship with that we actually feel it in our hearts: when our hearts skip a beat, or feel the thrill of love or excitement. THAT is joy. When we talk about our children or our achievements or something we have created as our “pride and joy” we’re getting at the same idea—it is relational, meaningful, love-based, non-conditional, and lasting.
While we may experience the joy of a meaningful or sentimental relationship we have with an item, the feeling is different than that which we experience in the purchase of that item. It’s love, rather than novelty. Happiness can be bought. Joy cannot be bought.
Most everyone experiences happiness at one point or another. There are fewer people who could be described as joyful. What’s the difference? While happiness is a state of being, joy is a way of being.
To be happy is to feel more positively than negatively. Happiness can be undone when unfavorable conditions arise. To seek happiness is to be at the mercy of circumstance. However it also means that we can create it for ourselves, and often rather simply. We can sip a cup of peppermint tea on a dreary day or run ourselves a bath after a stressful one. We can choose to invite things or people into our lives that we know will make our days happier.
To be joyful is to embody joy as a personal characteristic and trait. Whereas happiness is a result of an immediate lack of pain and hardship, joy is being able to acknowledge the realities of this world, the personal challenges and systemic injustices and being able to hold them in tension with hope and good, and to live with that ambiguity. This process takes time and is cultivated with regular practices, mindfulness, journalling, and intentional living.
By understanding this vital distinction and how both are created in our lives, we can better invite both happiness and joy in our lives. We may intentionally create happy moments while practicing acceptance and equanimity and peace and gratitude and hope. This is the balance I seek to create for you in every Go Love Yourself box for GLY members. When we provide ourselves with thought provoking books, journaling prompts, mindfulness practices and community in concert with worldly comforts like tea, chocolate, hot baths and candles, we are inviting ourselves to create the conditions for immediate happiness while laying the foundation for longterm joy and wellbeing.
My wish for you this month and every month is to feel and recognize moments of happiness and unadulterated joy and to truly bask in both.
How do you differentiate between happiness and joy? Leave your tips and questions for others below!
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