Happiness v. Joy

dad and me

What is the difference between happiness and joy? “That is an excellent question,” I said to one of my students recently when the question was posed. So, my class discussed a variety of ways to dissect these words and determine what they really mean. And then I left campus and drove home to my husband, four kids, and two cats…all the while consumed with thoughts about happiness v. joy. What is the difference? Why haven’t I thought more about this before? Is this even something worth questioning? Does it really matter? And down the rabbit hole I burrowed. When my youngest daughter came home from school that day and smiled and said, ‘I love you, mom,’ I decided that she was a good example of happiness. She was happy. She’s always been happy. Even as a baby. I would put her to bed at night in her crib and she would smile and coo at me until I would force myself to turn off the light and close the door. In the morning, I would go into her room and she would be doing the exact same thing, smiling and cooing, as if sleep never came and I’d imagined the previous night’s departure. She was always happy. Everyone said it. “What a happy baby.” “Look at that smile, she’s so happy all of the time.” And this felt like such a phenomenal thing. It still does. The concept of constant happiness is unimaginable for most people. I mean, everyone has unhappy moments or days, right? NO ONE IS HAPPY ALL OF THE DAMN TIME.

But what if they are? Maybe it’s possible. I’ve seen it with my daughter, so that has to mean something. Maybe she’s not happy all of the time, these days (now that she is 10 years old and pre-adolescent). But she is definitely happy 90% of the time, and that must mean something. I must at least warrant further consideration. Is it because she doesn’t have to worry about things like adults do? Maybe partially. But that can’t be all of it.

So, to go just a bit further down the rabbit hole in my happiness v. joy thought experiment, I began to wonder if I too was once this way. Is happiness genetic? Are some people pre-dispositioned to be happier than others? It can’t be based solely on life circumstances–I know plenty of people that seem way happier than their circumstances warrant. (Slightly judgmental, but a valid perspective nonetheless). I used to believe that I could convince myself to be happy. That I could “talk myself into it” so to speak. And now that I think about it, I still believe that. I believe we can control our thinking. I believe I can decide that I am not going to be in a bad mood, and then stop being in one. So, if that’s true…then why don’t I do it more often? Is it possible that I like the unhappy moments? Is it possible that I need to feel sad, sometimes? And what about joy? If I can manufacture feelings of happiness, then can I manufacture feelings of joy? Ahhh. Maybe that’s the difference between happiness and joy. Because I don’t know that I believe I can make myself feel joy. Joy is something else. It’s something bigger.

As I reflect back on my life, I have countless memories of happy moments. Everyday, I experience happiness in some form (sometimes small, sometimes big). But joy, that is something different. I think that happiness is sort of on the surface of things. Happiness is vulnerable to sudden departure. That’s it. Happiness is unpredictable and inconsistent.  But joy is more than that. Joy is something you feel deep down to the bone. Joy is a coming together of all the senses. A reunion of sorts. Joy is a celebration between the body, mind, and spirit. So, if I believe that to be true…what is joy to me? When have I experienced joy? And how can I make it return?

Six months ago, my father died. I still struggle to say that word aloud (died) and prefer “passed away,” as if he were a feather blowing in the wind and not an actual person who was the center of my world. (But since I am already trying to define happiness and joy, I won’t digress with trying to define death and passed away). My father’s death wasn’t unexpected, he was in the final stages of heart failure for quite some time. Yet nothing on earth could have prepared me for his departure from this earth and the living hell that would plague me in the months that followed. And while the last six months, imprisoned in the woes of grief, could wrench entire books from my tired soul…it is only lately that I question the absence of joy and long for her return.

So, if joy is to return…then, previous experiences must be examined. What are some examples of truly joyous moments for me? Besides the obvious, “when I first held my baby” moments? Or, “when I married my husband” moments? Sure. My children and husband have undoubtedly brought me many moments of joy. But when have I experienced joy outside of them? This is something I really want to reflect upon. Do moments of joy have to be deeply meaningful in order to be legitimate? (Pretty sure I’ve felt joy with the help of some substance or lust-fueled encounter). But I’ve also felt joy in moments of deep philosophical consideration of the world around me. Are those moments of joy better than boozy summer moments with a stranger at some pub in Paris (hypothetically, of course!)? Maybe there is a hierarchy of joy. For me…it feels like my joyous moments aren’t concerned with hierarchical status (I guess I’m a radical). But I do recall some of my joyous moments, the longer I sit here and think, with utmost happiness. So….that tells me something. I have not given up, or forgotten about, joy. I’m not so appalled by the thought of it that I refuse to acknowledge its past existence. In fact, I welcome these reflections. That must mean something. It must mean that I am going to experience deep joy again. Because why bother with this thing called life if we aren’t open to experiencing happiness and joy? Or helping others experience it? I can’t think of any other reasons for existing if not the constant pursuit of (and transmission of) happiness and joy.

And all the other things we feel (sadness, anger, heartache, pain)…those are just the side effects.



Published by lamandabeesleyconrad

#Writer of Literary Fiction. Writing Prof @ The University of Oklahoma. Mom & wife. Art, music, theatre enthusiast. HUMANIST.

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