‘Happiness’ is a broken concept.
“I actually detest the word ‘happiness,’ which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. The first step in positive psychology is to dissolve the monism of ‘happiness’ into more workable terms. Much more hangs on doing this well than a mere exercise in semantics.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish
“When we speak of experiencing happiness, we need to know that there are actually two different kinds. The first is the enjoyment of pleasure through our senses. […] But we can also experience happiness at the deeper level through our mind, such as through love, compassion, and generosity. What characterizes happiness at this deeper level is the sense of fulfillment that you experience. While the joy of the senses is brief, the joy at this deeper level is much longer lasting. It is true joy.” – the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy
For better clarity and understanding, we are going to reign in the overreach of colloquial ‘happiness,’ which conflates life satisfaction, meaning, and a good mood, to name a few. ‘Happiness,’ with quotations, is what we’ve named this section, and it is how we affectionately refer to holistic well-being, what we mean to say when using the word colloquially.
But what does happiness really refer to? How can we more intentionally use the word happiness, aside from the over-generalizing colloquial ‘happiness?’ And how about joy?
Distinguishing the Two
Happy comes from the Old Norse word ‘happ’ which means luck. Literally, happy means to have good luck or fortunate circumstances. It is the same root word that gives us our term “to happen” or “happenstance”.
Joy comes from the Latin ‘ gaudium’ or the root ‘gau-’ meaning ‘to rejoice,’ a verb that signals the active choice on the part of a person to choose to celebrate or enjoy.
As far as the English language goes, a helpful divide already bears itself:
Happy is more so something that happens to you.
Joy is more so something you choose for yourself.
Semantically, when we say that we’re not happy, we’re saying we believe that the world is not being nice/kind/lovely/fair to us; that we are unlucky. Conversely, when we say we are happy, we’re saying that the world is running in our favor, that divine factors have aligned for us, that the cosmos is giving us a reward. In all of this, happiness or unhappiness is not fully within our control. The general point is this:
Happiness is a feeling brought by external factors.
Now, that isn’t to say that we aren’t actors in this case. We can create the circumstances for these things to occur, depending on power and resources. Thus, they are not totally happenstance. The important thing to notice is that the source of happiness in this case — getting a new car, playing a video game, or enjoying a good snack — is external. Although we act to beget these occurrences, the ‘happy’ they bring does not come from within.
And the feeling itself? Well, it’s generally fleeting. You can think of happiness as the water that fills a chamber that is constantly emptying. When it comes to this sensation of happiness, there is little retention. It is a natural process for these experiences to come and to go.
When this vessel is empty, you return to your default condition, your stasis, and when the happiness events are few and far between (that tub is very empty for a while), you are unhappy.
You’ll see similarities later to our First Element of Well-Being: Ephemeral Pleasures. Happiness is what we feel with that Element. We can spin the wheel with our experience of objects (buying things, playing with things, etc), with entertainment (movies, ‘fun’ activities, etc.), or with sensory pleasures (food, drinks, pleasant smells, unattached sex, etc.).
When we say that we’re joyful, however, we are implying one or both of two much deeper things:
- We are having a feeling or sense of deep satisfaction, related to a more long-term assessment of how our life is going.
- We’re making a choice to rejoice in the current situation. It focuses on our agency and our ability to positively engage with whatever scenario is at our feet.
Again, looking forward to our 4 Well-Being Elements, you’ll see that Joy resembles Elements 3 and 4. Element 3: Perspective, makes joy more easily attainable, for example by fostering a mindset of self-awareness and mindfulness, among many other Perspective tools. And lasting joy comes from Meaning and Purpose, our fourth, and most important, Element of Well-Being.
They often work together. One activity may be a mix of several, and the mix may change from moment to moment. Nevertheless, it’s the distinction between Happiness and Joy, as presented here, that’s crucial.
Positive psychologists make a similar sort of distinction in their research, putting well-being into two categories, which can serve as helpful synonyms for Happiness and Joy. Respectively, they are “Hedonic” and “Eudaimonic” well-being.
Hedonic vs Eudaimonic Well-Being
Considering the recent growth in popularity of Positive Psychology, you may have run across these terms before. Or you have read these terms on the Glossary page, which defines a couple of key terms and how they’re being used throughout this site. The same is offered here:
- Hedonic well-being / Hedonia – Synonymous with Happiness, this refers strictly to positive feelings—the experience of pleasure, enjoyment, comfort, absence of distress. Hedonic well-being does not refer to the entirety of the feeling of, say, feeling a job well done or a mother embracing her child. Continue reading below.
- Eudaimonic Well-Being / Eudaimonia – The aspect of well-being associated with meaning, purpose, and perspective. Like hedonia, this is also a subjective aspect of well-being. But unlike hedonia, which refers only to feelings, eudaimonia can refer to experiences and/or a way of functioning and outlook on life as well.
Eudaimonic well-being can include positive feelings but excludes positive feelings that are not connected to meaningful experience. Like ‘thriving’ or ‘flourishing,’ it also contains growth, prosperity, and virtue.
Joy, almost synonymous with eudaimonic well-being, refers more specifically to the experience of eudaimonia. It is the state, feeling, and/or sense of well-being stemming from meaning, purpose, and perspective. Defining joy in this way gives us a very useful distinction from happiness.
By now, can you relate to the distinction being made here? Do you feel it? These different sides of well-being are part of the human experience and part of our collective, cultural lexical journey. In fact, the term ‘Eudaimonia’ was coined by Aristotle (at least in popular modern interpretation. But the term existed in Greek vocabulary hundreds of years before he was born1). Our collective goal now is to highlight the distinction in our use of the words happiness and joy.
As you ponder the differences between happiness/hedonia and joy/eudaimonia, you may notice something interesting:
Happy experiences feel good, while Joyful experiences often do, but don’t always.
And that is ok.
A Helpful Visual
So joy and happiness are of a different nature.And, they certainly interact. A ‘happy’ life (in the colloquial sense) is a life lived in a blissful intersection of Happiness and Joy.
Looking at these two separate circles, we can dissociate some individual characteristics and examples found in each. Look at the activities and traits that represent Joy, and consider separately the examples of Happiness. They do feel different, don’t they?
However, we can move these circles closer together. Where they intersect, something becomes obvious: there are things that we enjoy that contain elements of both ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’. Time with friends, reading an insightful book, or singing along with the radio….while these activities can be fleeting instances of pleasure, they may also contain traces of, say, discovery or expression. Therefore, they can also carry a sense of meaning.
We can see more examples as we move the circles even closer together. Life offers an endless list of things to do that offer both happiness and joy. It may be a delight to put on your favorite music, and begin making a gift for a friend. What gives back, deeply, from such an activity is the sense of purpose that comes with expressing yourself with a gift and sharing love with a friend.
Throughout any day, week, or year, these circles and our place within them ebb and flow. Sliding together and apart, we may drink a tasty drink and find pleasure with no meaning (again, nothing wrong with that, per se). We likewise may stay up all night with a sick child, creating joy/meaning amidst an unhappy sleepless night.
Now that we have a clearer picture of Joy, what do we do with it?
Especially in Western culture, society focuses people on happiness more than on joy. In the modern world, people and businesses are constantly competing for your attention, trying to sell you the next thing, idea, experience, or pastime that will make you happy. Happiness is great, after all. Pleasure and contentment are a wonderful part of existing, and it makes sense to feel good from moment to moment. The danger is that it can distract us from joy.
With the popular rise of Positive Psychology research, people are increasingly honing in on this comparison:
Each of these recent popular articles calls attention to meaningful living (joy) amidst cultures over-focused on happiness. They do a decent job of calling on recent science, too.
- Getting Over Happiness: Why Meaningfulness Is A Better Life Purpose – Forbes – The author argues that Happiness as a life pursuit is self-centered and “a poor energizer for action.”
- Happiness Is Not Enough: Why a Life Without Meaning Will Make You Sick – Buffer – Calling on Frankl, Baumeister, and others’ research, happiness as a pursuit is stripped down as a red herring.
- Stop Chasing Happiness, Look for Meaning Instead – Psychology Today -A psychologist talks about the ‘existential vacuum’ faced by many of his clients. He offers “OPA!” 3 simple steps for more meaningful living:
- Others — finding ways to strengthen our connections and sense of belonging with others using lessons from traditional village life
- Purpose — discovering deeper insights so that we can “know ourselves” and engage with deeper purpose by using our unique talents to extend beyond ourselves to help others
- Attitude — choosing our attitude toward what happens in our lives to build resilience and seek health and well-being in all situations we may face
- A Happy Life or a Meaningful One—Do We Really Need to Choose? – Yes Magazine – Calling on Baumeister’s 5 Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful One, the author advises to seek a meaningful life, and find pleasure along the way.
- What is Eudaimonia? Aristotle and Eudaimonic Well-Being – Positive Psych – A helpful and comprehensive breakdown of Eudaimonia. Looking first at history, the article puts it into a modern context as is done here.
- Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? – Greater Good Berkeley – Another article presenting recent research that highlights the important distinction between happiness and joy.
- Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness – The Atlantic – “People who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity.”
- What is Better: A Happy Life or a Meaningful One? – Aeon – Aeon’s take on how to live a meaningful life. Their approach is similar as you will find here, and in different words.
Joy is important because it is the undercurrent to the rest of our lives. It can exist underneath happiness, or even unhappiness.
You can joyfully change a dirty diaper; you likely cannot be happy doing so. You can joyfully have an argument with a loved one; you likely cannot be happy doing so. You can joyfully lose your perfect job; you likely cannot be happy doing so.
“Feeling cheerful or merry is a far cry from what Thomas Jefferson declared that we have the right to pursue.” – Martin Seligman, Flourish
- Haybron, D.M. (2016). The Philosophical Basis of Eudaimonic Psychology. In: Vittersø, J. (eds) Handbook of Eudaimonic Well-Being. International Handbooks of Quality-of-Life. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-42445-3_2