How Do You Differentiate Between Happiness and Joy?

The pursuit of happiness is a losing game. Gratitude will show you the way.

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The message at church last week was a wonderful piece about the difference between happiness and joy, so I’d like to share this same topic with all of you this week. Until Sunday, I hadn’t really given much thought about the difference between the two; they seem to be, and reasonably so, closely related and somewhat interchangeable. But a closer look reveals that these words have the potential to be quite different.

Malcolm Muggeridge, a British Journalist, said it beautifully in the following quote:

“I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness…”

In the quote above, one word stands out to me that has a profound effect on the distinction between happiness and joy – “pursuing.”

Pursuing happiness

If you visit the resources page of my website, you’ll see my thoughts about the book Your Money or Your Life. It changed everything for me, and I think everyone should read it. In that book, one of the concepts on which the authors focus is the idea of “enough.”

Unfortunately, these days, too many people can’t seem to get “enough” – enough money, enough car, enough house, enough travel, enough job status. Sure, you might experience a degree of happiness once you get that raise or bonus, new car, new house, or new job title, but we all know that the happiness doesn’t last. After a certain point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. All the “new” or “more” is doing is resetting our baseline so, before long, we’re already craving (pursuing!) the next thing; that’s a certain recipe for disappointment!

In other words, the pursuit of happiness is based on an external focus. In our minds, we don’t have enough of whatever it is because we’re comparing ourselves to others. Consider this: a research study was done, whereby participants were asked the following question:

Would you rather earn $50,000 per year, while other people earn $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 per year, while other people make $200,000?

Overwhelmingly, the respondents selected the first scenario! They’d rather earn half of what they could have picked, so that they can make twice as much as everyone else, instead of taking the six figures that would be 50% less than their peers. A head-scratcher for sure! But it goes back to my point: we too often associate happiness with external factors.

This survey also brings up another point: maybe it’s not always about the money, but the desire to just have more than everyone else (perhaps thinking that will make us happier??). Plenty of studies have shown that money can’t buy happiness, but that’s a whole other animal so we’ll save that topic for another post.

Revisiting the quote above, Muggeridge says that he didn’t really feel or understand joy until he got off the proverbial hamster wheel. Let’s look now at what he discovered – joy.

Experiencing Joy

In comparison to happiness, or the pursuit of it, I believe joy is a state of mind – an inner peace. Joy is harder to define, but you’ll know it when you have it. When I think back to some of the struggles I faced at the beginning of this journey, I realize now that I lacked joy. I lacked gratitude, and I didn’t appreciate all the wonderful things around me. The focus was outward, not inward.

Speaking of not having an inward focus, part of what has brought me joy, and what is probably lacking for many people that aren’t joyful, is an understanding that we are all responsible for our own actions. Blaming other people or other things for what happens to you is the surest way to prevent joy. At the end of the day, the only thing we can control is ourselves. If you figure this out, it will go a long way to giving you inner peace and, therefore, joy.

Does this mean that I’m in a constant state of glow, with a 24/7 smile from ear to ear? Not a chance. I may be unhappy with a decision I made, unhappy after fighting wall-to-wall traffic, or unhappy for any number of reasons (I’m far from perfect!). But I’m still joyful. Happiness can come and go, but the joy is what sustains you. If happiness is the surface of the ocean, constantly moving and changing, joy is the calm underneath.

And they’re off!

If you’ve ever watched a dog race, you know that the dogs are chasing a fake rabbit, moving just out of reach of the pack. Well, guess what? For many people, happiness is the rabbit, and no matter how intently they pursue it, they can never seem to keep up with it, much less catch it.

Think of life as the race. Win or lose, give it your best shot, go at your own pace, finish strong, and just be joyful that you’re even getting a chance to compete.

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