Joy Isn’t Happiness: The Surprising Difference I Found

Here’s a little story that should sound familiar, because this story happens in all the homes across the country. Unless you run a real tight ship, and if so, TEACH ME YOUR WAYS! About a week ago, I caught my boys devouring a bag of mini marshmallows they’d found in the freezer. They weren’t even trying to hide. They just plopped down on the floor and were shoveling them in their mouths by the fistful with no plan to stop until the bag ran out. The air around them literally smelled of sugar. The sugar high that followed was astounding. Of course, their stomachs were too full to eat dinner and they had tummy aches from filling themselves up with junk.

Ok, so hold that thought and that visual image while I switch gears.

Seek Joy. Choose happiness.

These messages are everywhere right now. They’re used interchangeably with a seemingly similar end goal in mind. But is joy the same thing as happiness? On the surface, everyone shouts “no” in unison. But as I dove into this question a bit further, I found there’s anything but unity. Apparently, something I thought was a one-and-done, straight and simple answer, has all kinds of interpretations, manifestations and even misunderstandings.

As I went deeper and deeper, I realized that I didn’t have the answer to this question all figured out myself, even though I’ll admit that I thought I did. For a long time, I have believed the differences between the two to be that joy is present no matter what your circumstances and happiness is a result of what is  “happening to us”.

And I still believe that to be true. But I found something else.

I found that joy and happiness don’t really even belong on the same page of the book. They’re not on a spectrum with one being a greater amount of the other. In fact, they’re not interchangeable at all and could be argued that in one way, they’re polarizing to one another.

Word Study

I love studying words…aka etymology. I love digging into their definitions and discovering lost meanings that have been forgotten over the years. So yes, I’m the one who actually likes reading the dictionary. Words are so rich and meaningful and it sometimes seems as if we’ve only scratched the surface in our own understanding when they carelessly roll off of our tongues. Language is interesting in that it’s fluid. It changes as we use it. Words that mean one thing can swing and suddenly mean something completely different. Phrases coined by one group of people may mean something else to others. There’s so much we don’t know. So studying etymology, the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time is fascinating to me.

So I dove into the words and I found all kinds of definitions.

Happiness is easier to understand, I think. It is a spontaneous response to a temporary pleasure. A feeling we have when we are pleased by our surroundings or circumstances. A song we love on the radio. A good grade on a quiz. A delicious meal. A pair of jeans that fit just right. A mouthful of marshmallows. These are all sources of happiness. When they’re gone, the happiness fades and we move on to find something else to make us happy again. 

The Greek word for “joy” is chara. I followed a word hole down and found that a more literal translation for our word “joy” would be more similar to the words we use for “gratitude” and “appreciation”, than the word that we use to describe “happiness”. Gratitude in action looks like contentment. Joy is contentment in all things…all situations, all unanswered questions, all financial brackets, all unknowns, all the time. This is why people can possess joy during hardships. They can mourn death, suffer through a painful disease, persevere through fearful circumstances, and still claim to possess joy. 

The Big Difference

Now I don’t necessarily think there’s anything wrong with happiness…except that it could possibly keep us from finding and truly experiencing joy. And happiness, when you look at it in the face, can be superficial and shallow because it’s dependent on an outcome. It’s when circumstances around you are pleasing to you. So if we find ourselves satisfied by happiness, we might just stop right there. Yes, truly if our end goal is always happiness, it can distract us from ever experiencing true joy or contentment.

Pursuit and achievement of happiness could absolutely teach us that we can only be content when things work out the way we’d hoped, which unfortunately, isn’t really contentment at all.

Are you struggling to find happiness? Or joy? Or both?

What I’ve found is that obtaining these requires two different strategies. To find happiness, find something you like and celebrate it. But don’t expect it to fill you up forever. Don’t expect contentment. Don’t expect the marshmallows to sustain you. The song on the radio will end. The jeans may not fit next year. You might fail the next quiz. To find joy, find something unconditional, never-ending and guaranteed that will bring gratitude despite your circumstances and contentment that lasts.

I know this isn’t everyone, but I believe the true source of our joy is Jesus’s love for us.

Are there other sources that provide joy like Jesus? I honestly don’t know because I’ve never been left wanting. Unlike my list above giving examples of sources of happiness that can grow old, fade or become tired, Jesus’s love is literally the one thing I know that cannot ever be taken away from us. His love is the only constant and there’s a lot of peace and contentment that can be found in that. All of our possessions, relationships, roles and responsibilities could be stripped away and He would still be near. Even on my worst days. Even when all the things have gone wrong and all my hopes feel lost. Jesus told his followers that he came so that in him we would have fullness of joy (John 15:11). FULLNESS of JOY? Yes please.

When we satisfy ourselves with the mini marshmallows, we miss out on the nourishing dinner sitting on the table. The sticky, over-promising, but under-delivering sweetness eventually turns to aching from within that we need something more. An awareness that a bad exchange was made. In the same way, happiness tastes good in the moment, but it wears off, making us a product of our circumstances and leaving us hungry, malnourished and desperate for another “sugar” rush.

Joy, contentment, gratitude. Those fill us from within and can’t be taken away from us.

And then we can see happiness for what it is. A sweet treat to season and flavor a life sustained by true joy. And we can count on joy to sustain us through thick and thin.


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