The Declaration of Independence authors cemented into American consciousness that “…Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are universal “unalienable Rights.” Happiness—a state of contentment and well-being—has been the subject of many studies and books, telling us how much we long for it. So often, we chase happiness by achieving what we want. That could be a college degree, a relationship, creative work, a new car, or a dream job. Yet happiness isn’t always dependent on our achievements—we can be happy without accomplishing or buying anything. For example, we can increase happiness by meditating, writing in a gratitude journal, and practicing religion.
In contrast, joy is a more primitive emotion felt as great delight or pleasure, less tied to our endeavors. Our baby takes his first step, and we cry. A rush of euphoria sweeps over us after we’ve conquered a debilitating fear. Unexpectedly, we win a hard-earned award and can hardly contain our delight.
George E. Vaillant, PhD, a Harvard Medical School professor, offers a scientific explanation of the two emotions. He believes happiness comes from the neocortex, which he calls “the thinking part” of the brain. Joy, on the hand, is subconscious, stemming from the limbic system, which seems to control emotions like pleasure. Joy certainly feels subconscious. We feel calm one minute and then overcome with excitement the next.
Designer and author Ingrid Fetell Lee helps people find more joy in their surroundings. She writes about how happiness and joy differ: “Happiness is something that measures how good we feel over time. But joy is about feeling good right now, in the moment.” She points out that when we ask ourselves if we are happy or not, we think about how fulfilling our career is, our health, and the state of our relationships. She says the more we think about it, the less confident we may be about our happiness. But whether we feel joyful is a simpler question because joy is an emotion that can be “measured in the moment.” We have a better sense of how joy feels, so our response to whether or not we feel it is more accurate.
New York Times columnist and author David Brooks offers yet another perspective: “Happiness usually involves victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another. Joy comes after years of changing diapers, driving to practice, worrying at night, dancing in the kitchen, playing in the yard and just sitting quietly together watching TV.” He asserts, “Joy is the present that life gives you as you give away your gifts.”
Although happiness and joy differ, they work harmoniously to give us a sense of well-being that we’d like to feel more of in life. Thankfully, we can cultivate both. We can start by asking ourselves, “How can I be happier?” We tend to know what makes us happy, so this question may not be hard to answer.
Joy, however, can be harder to find in our lives. Since joy is a deeper, subconscious emotion, we can’t capture it as easily as happiness. The secret to capturing joy is to take in and acknowledge the world around us, focusing on what’s right rather than dwelling on what’s wrong. By letting go of self-preoccupation and noticing life’s beauty and goodness, we encourage more moments of joy.
What is your perspective on joy versus happiness? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!