Joy vs Happiness: What’s the difference?

Years ago, pre-covid, my family I went to Tasmania and ended up in this beautiful AirBnb by the Derwent River.

Taking a walk by the river with my husband, hand in hand, with my younger daughter and niece skipping along the path in front of us, I experienced deep joy. I don’t know whether it was just being by water (it always has this effect on me), or just being away from the hustle and bustle. But deep inside me, I felt like that moment captured the essence of who I was, and the life I wanted to live.

It is no wonder then that Brené Brown, in her latest book Atlas of the Heart, defines joy as “an intense feeling of deep spiritual connection, pleasure and appreciation”. She cites researcher Matthew Kuan Johnson, who explains that people find experiences of joy difficult to articulate.

I agree. That moment, while I can describe it or even share the picture, is something I have yet to fully be able to express in words or feeling. It is just a moment that I keep coming back to.

Joy is characterised by a connection with others, with a spiritual being, nature or the universe. When we experience joy, Johnson elaborates, is when we become more truly ourselves.

And in that moment that I keep coming back to, I now realise it was when where I felt completely authentic to values I hold dear: freedom and love. Freedom to do what I want, freedom to be who I want to do, with the people I care deeply about.

In that sense, joy is more internal, short-lasting, and high-intensity.

“[Joy is when…] Colours seem brighter, phsyical movements feel freer and easier, and smiling happens involuntarily.”

– Matthew Kuan Johnson

Happiness, on the other hand, is more stable, long-lasting, and normally the result of effort. It is more self-focused.

We may often ask our friends or loved ones, “Are you happy?” and we seldom mean right now, in the moment. What we mean to ask is, “If you look at your life, are you happy about it?” The person is likely taking a scan over various aspects of their life in order to make a quick assessment.

Based on the data collected by Brown, she defines happiness as “feeling pleasure often related to the immediate environment, or current circumstances.” In some way, happiness is more circumstantial and external as compared to joy.

Hence, we feel happy when someone remembers our birthday. We feel happy when we get promoted at work. We feel happy when we get to savour our favourite food. Moments of happiness occur around us, and we need these moments to continue feeling that life is good.

The last time I felt happy was when my younger daughter jumped on my lap, pretended to be a doggy and barked just like the neighbour’s dog. The dog even barked back! 🐶

It seems we need both joy and happiness in our life. On the one hand, to be connected to the parts of our soul that sometimes seems hidden, to who we truly are; and on the other, to enjoy those lovely moments that make us smile and remember that life is good.

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Disclaimer:

I share authentically what I think possible solutions might be, but it is purely from what I have studied (scientific evidence) and my own experience in coaching & training others in this area for the past 11 years. I am not here to diagnose or treat. If you need further help, please do seek the necessary support.

References:

Brown (2021). Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Vermillion London.

Johnson (2020. Joy: A Review of the Literature and Suggestions for Future Directions. The Journal of Positive Psychology.

🙏 Thank you to Eleanor Tan for asking this question!

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