Happiness vs. Joy

A big part of the writing about happiness on the website is to get across one simple, underestimated fact: There are different types of happiness.
In conjunction with the 4 different “Types” we list throughout these pages, there is one crucial distinction between two groups of happiness.
We frequently use the phrases ‘joy’ and ‘happiness’ interchangeably. Yet, there is a subtle and important difference between the two.
Now, throughout these pages, we have mostly used the word ‘happiness’ colloquially, to actually reflect both happiness and joy. This makes things simpler as you go through the pages and learn. However, it necessitates this very page. The purpose here is to delineate between Happiness and Joy. Mistaking happiness for joy is a common roadblock in a life toward greater fulfillment and bliss. Sometimes, especially on Type 4: Meaning and Purpose, when we say “happiness,” what we’re really talking about is “joy”.
Why, then? What’s the difference? This page will elucidate some fundamental differences and provide you with more awareness about what you’re experiencing when you experience it.

Distinguishing the Two

Happy comes from the Old Norse word ‘happ’ which means luck. Literally, happy means ‘to have good luck.’ It is the same root word that gives us our term “to happen” or “happenstance”.
Joy comes from the Latin ‘ gaudium’ 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:
Happy is something that happens to you.
Joy is something you choose for yourself.


Semantically, when we say that we’re not happy, what we’re affirming is that 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 primary thing to remember here is this:
Happiness is a feeling achieved by external factors. 
Now, that isn’t to say that we aren’t actors in these situations. We can create the circumstances for these things to occur, more or less 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 might think of happiness as the water that fills a chamber which 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 happiness set point, your stasis, and when the happiness events are few and far between (that tub is very empty for a while), you are unhappy.

If you’ve already read about our First Type of Happiness: Ephemeral Pleasures, you’re probably noticing similarities here. ‘Happiness’ is what we feel with that type. We can spin the wheel with our experience of objects (buying things, playing with things, etc), with entertainment (Movies, ‘fun’ activities like video games, etc.), or with sensory pleasures (food, drinks, pleasant smells, unattached sex, etc.).


When we say that we’re joyful however, we’re saying that 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, if you’ve read through our Happiness Types, you’ll immediately call to mind Type 3: Perspective, and it’s true, Joy is more easily attainable with a mindset of self-awareness and mindfulness. However this isn’t everything.
True joy comes from Meaning and Purpose. The the main point here is that happiness is dissociated from our sense of self…sort of external. It happens to us. Joy, however, happens by us.
When you reflect on your life and invoke a sense of meaning, you feel joy.
Positive psychologists make a similar sort of distinction in their research on happiness. They put well-being into two important categories: Evaluative vs. Experiential.

Evaluative vs. Experiential Well-Being

We experience things in one way and evaluate them in a different way all the time. Ever wonder how you friend or loved one can keep saying “I love my job” when they seem miserable day in and day out. Can you think of an adventure, maybe a camping trip, that went wrong and made you miserable when it was happening, but you now look back upon fondly?

Research has shown how commonly people’s report of overall satisfaction with their lives isn’t necessarily correlated with repeated accounts of well-being moment to moment, day-to-day. (Happiness by Design, pg. 4)(hedonic vs. eudiamonic)
The key difference here is meaning and purpose.
Joy is the underlying, over-arching sense of contentedness we feel with our reality, ourselves, and our place in the world. It is less temporary. Again, it is not happening to us, but by us.

Choose Joy

Now that we have a clearer picture of Joy, what do we do with it.
We would like to make the assertion that, 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 with make you happy. Happiness is great. It makes sense to feel good from moment to moment. Well-being is, and feelings of pleasure and contentedness are, a beautiful part of existing. The danger is that it can distract us from joy.
Our overarching sense of purpose is rarely considered together with the activities in our daily lives. It is no wonder that Joy and life satisfaction tend to come from things that require more time and effort (Expression and Discovery), and less thinking about ourselves (Service and Love).
Joy is important because it is the undercurrent to the rest of our lives. Joy 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.
How can you be joyful in these scenarios? By choosing to see and celebrate what you value in them, and by living these experiences as parts of a life of meaning and purpose.
The pain of the car door reminds you of your connection to all humans who suffer pain: to be in pain is to be human (discovery)! To have an argument with a loved one means that there is something you both believe in fervently enough to express yourself in a passionate manner (Expression), and that you’ve created and fostered a relationship where these emotions can be shared (love); to lose a perfect job can also mean the opening up of other possibilities in your life: of finding new joys through growing into a different job role (service).

Five Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful One

an article from the Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley

“A happy life and a meaningful life have some differences,” says Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. He bases that claim on a paper he published last year in the Journal of Positive Psychology, co-authored with researchers at the University of Minnesota and Stanford.
Baumeister and his colleagues surveyed 397 adults, looking for correlations between their levels of happiness, meaning, and various other aspects of their lives: their behavior, moods, relationships, health, stress levels, work lives, creative pursuits, and more.
They found that a meaningful life and a happy life often go hand-in-hand—but not always. And they were curious to learn more about the differences between the two. Their statistical analysis tried to separate out what brought meaning to one’s life but not happiness, and what brought happiness but not meaning.
Their findings suggest that meaning (separate from happiness) is not connected with whether one is healthy, has enough money, or feels comfortable in life, while happiness (separate from meaning) is. More specifically, the researchers identified five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful one.
  • Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life.
    Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.
  • Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more
    about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was
    seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.
  • Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you.
    Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more
    to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was
    related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described
    “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to
    happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but
    not happiness.
  • Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to
    higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult
    situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.
  • Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring
    about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example,
    considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness.
  • Happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Challenge can be route to meaning.

A Helpful Visual

Joy and Happiness are of a different nature, as we’ve seen.

And, they certainly interact. A “happy” life (in the colloquial sense) is a life lived in a blissful intersection of Happiness and Joy.

Thinking of these two separate circles, we can dissociate some individual characteristics found in each, as well as examples. Look at the activities and traits that represent “Joy”, and consider separately the examples of “Happiness.” They sort of 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.

As the circles move even closer together, we can see more examples. 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, our place within these circles and the circles themselves ebb and flow. Sliding together and apart, we may drink a tasty drink and find pleasure with no meaning. We likewise may stay up all night with a sick child, creating joy/meaning but finding no happiness. The position of the circles above exemplifies a very happy and joyous life. This is a mightily inspirational position to seek for an average of where our circles sit: full of activities that carry both purpose and pleasure.

And here it is…a blissful state of synonymy among happiness and joy.

Some may call it Ikigai, “A reason to wake up in the morning.” You can see further elaboration on our Bliss Map.

A sort of life in which the mastery of a skill is pursued, deep interpersonal connection is thriving, etc…it is what we strive for. When these circles meet, pleasure and purpose are tightly interwoven into our activities, going hand-in-hand as we make our way through time.