Real Life: Joy vs. Happiness

You only need look as far as most people’s Pinterest boards to find many, many quotes about happiness. When I started writing this post, I did a quick, informal count of my own quotes based board and totaled at least seven pinned quotes that mentioned the words happy or happiness. There were only two that mentioned joy: “Comparison is the thief to joy,” and “Let your joy rise to the surface.”

Why do I bring all this up? A couple weeks ago, I watched this short little snippet of an interview with Oprah and Stephen Colbert. Sort of an unlikely pair, to be sure, but I’ve watched this interview several times now. It really, really resonated with me. One, because Stephen’s own experience with grief and loss as a young person essentially mirror my own (his mentioning of the ‘secret name’ was like someone defining a condition you feel like you’ve had your whole life but could never get properly diagnosed). But, even more interesting was their discussion on joy versus happiness. In fact, both agreed that happiness was totally overrated. Oprah said, “Over the years, if I ask people what they really want, people always say, ‘I want to be happy.’ But they don’t even know what that really means. I’d much rather be joyful, on any given day, than just happy.”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this conversation! It’s so true that the majority of us say that we’re just seeking happiness. Our partners and friends, especially when we’re arguing or maybe struggling with where we are in life, might tell us, “I just want you to be happy.” So what is the difference between happiness and joy? I’ve been turning this over in my head a lot, and while I haven’t come up with anything concrete, the only thing I can point to is the difference in feeling when I’m joyful versus when I’m happy. Joyful is like sunlight. Pure gold. So effusive, bubbling, incandescent. Happiness just feels like contentment. Warm, and comfortable, but nowhere near as intense, and it feels like the emotion doesn’t carve out such a lasting memory in my brain. Which makes me wonder — is aiming for happy really aiming for being content?

This is such a complex Real Life post, since everyone experiences emotions differently. But I’m curious — what does joy mean to you, and how does it differ from happiness? What’s an instance in which you feel joyful, versus just happy? Do you think we should aim for more joy in our lives, and designate it as a higher benchmark than plain ‘ol happiness?

Or…does making joy more desirable than happiness send us into a cycle of never feeling satisfied?

Deep thoughts, y’all! I’d love to hear yours.

{Image Credits: Lauren Ross for}


  1. 10.24.12
    rita said:

    thank you for writing this post. i love this. i went through a personal happiness project a few months ago and this is really making me sit back and think about whether or not i was seeking contentment, joy, or actual happiness. i think i found ways to bring out all three, but i’m not sure what exactly did that!

    i guess i need to think about it more, but my first instinct is that it is much harder to find and experience joy in the little things if you aren’t generally happy, satisfied, and content… you need to seek out both, in different ways, to truly get the most out of each feeling.

    for example- if you are miserable in your own life, but your sibling or best friend or someone has a baby/gets married/etc., you will (hopefully) feel joyful at that huge, momentous occasion. but i’m not sure you’d feel joyful over drinks with that friend, or when the baby crawls, or gives you a hug, if you are stuck in your own misery…

    not sure this all makes sense! this was a great post and definitely something that made me think.. thank you!

  2. 10.24.12

    I completely agree that happy=content, and I am most of the time (at least when my head doesn’t get in the way!). I suppose I get joy out of the little things, like my hubby surprising me with mini pumpkins from the store, and seeing my mom through Skype. My sister visiting me was the last significant joyful moment of my life, and even just thinking about it fills me up =)

  3. 10.24.12

    Such a great post! Reminds me of The Happiness Project (a MUST-read!).

  4. 10.24.12
    varsha said:

    This is wonderful post. Being a spiritual person I can say joy is an emotion like any other anger, sadness fear etc where as happiness is within , that is your natural state, comes from your heart. Emotion is in your mind. That can go up or down depending your mental status. Happiness on the other hand is constant everlasting flow, you do not nees anything exernaly to happen to make you happy. You are just happy being yourself, you can be happy with every small things, like looking at the flower, bird, sunset or just sitting on the beach. Does this make sense ?????

  5. 10.24.12
    elizabeth said:

    Great post! To me happiness is a temporary feeling of bliss or contentment – receiving/giving a gift, enjoying a great meal, having sex! Joy is everlasting – the love of a child, working on a marriage, succeeding at your dream career – I think joy is in the background and feeds your soul, whereas happiness is a spark that makes you smile for a moment…
    xoxo -e (

  6. 10.24.12
    Rachel said:

    The truth is, every time I blow out a candle (for the past 10 or so years,) I’ve wished to be happy. Sadly, it’s hasn’t really happened yet. I never really thought in-depth about joy versus happiness, so this really got me thinking!

  7. 10.24.12

    I think this is a really great post, and I hadn’t actually thought of the two sentiments being different before.

    I think there’s nothing wrong with striving for happiness in life though, because don’t you want to be content most of the time? Always aiming for joy might take the actual ‘joy’ out of it all. If you’re always feeling pure bliss and golden sunlight-y, won’t that eventually just feel so normal and not special anymore? Besides, I think that if you aim for that all the time, it’s not that realistic and therefore might be a bit disappointing.

    In any case, I’m glad you made a point of the differences between the two. It definitely makes you think, huh?

  8. 10.24.12
    holly said:

    I try and see joy as the ability to find enjoyment in life. We can choose to find joy; it is internal.

  9. 10.24.12
    Candace said:

    Recently, my pastor preached a sermon on joy vs. happiness. For me, happiness is a temporary thing based largely on circumstances. Whereas joy is a much deeper and can exist in spite of what you are going through. The joy that I have in my heart, no matter what the day may bring, comes as a result of the saving grace I receive from Jesus Christ. Happiness is fleeting, but joy can be forever if you trust God with every detail of your life.

  10. 10.24.12
    Emily said:

    I’ve often heard the difference explained as Happiness is an emotion, based on immediate circumstances. Joy is more of a state of mind, a perspective from which one views life. So even when circumstances are bleak, one can still have joy because they see the bigger picture.

    I think there’s a strong connection between contentment and joy and happiness. In fact, studies show that people who keep a gratitude journal are happier and more content, and after keeping a gratitude journal for a long time, it becomes a way of life, so it leads to a joyful outlook on life!

    Deep thoughts! :)

  11. 10.24.12
    Madison said:

    Joy is that pervasive feeling about the little things. Feeling wonderful about where you are headed and the decisions you make. Happiness is smiling at something that makes the day brighter. Being in a sweet moment.

    First comment but this touched me. I love your blog! xx

  12. 10.25.12

    Joy is mostly likely found in a smile, a touch, a kind word…because you often find the most joy and meaning in the ordinary moments of life. The same is true of life purpose.

    Great post you have here!

  13. 10.26.12

    I hadn’t really thought about the difference between the two before either… but I think you have it right. Happiness = contentment, whereas Joy is more of an emotion / that “gold” you describe.

    Loved this post. :)

  14. 10.26.12
    LWP said:

    This is so thought-provoking. They are definitely two different things to me. I have incredibly joyful days but I don’t think I have yet found the “happiness/contentment” that I’m seeking.

  15. 10.26.12
    Bekah said:

    First, I love this post. It made me think all week!

    I too am not sure how to capture joy versus happiness, and will have to continue thrashing that out (perhaps in a journal?) but I do love what commenter Emily said about gratitude being tied in to it all. Having struggled with happiness (haven’t been a naturally happy person), I started reminding myself daily what I was thankful for, and while I still wouldn’t be labeled as “happy” or “joyful” by most, I have finally reached a point where I am content and at peace with life and with what does or does not happen. I definitely feel “happier,” and I do have more moments of “joy” by choosing to surround myself with things that create that in my life.

    I’m not sure that chasing joy or even happiness is the answer to anyone’s quality of life, though. An emotion cannot be the goal, because emotions come and go. For me, at least, it all goes back to cultivating gratitude and moments that reach out to my soul.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post!

  16. 10.29.12
    Emily said:

    Victoria this is an absolutely beautiful post. I always feel like joy is the ultimate form of happiness. I think maybe we should strive for happiness as our everyday and joy for those special moments instead of happiness being our ultimate and leaving the rest of our days contently unfulfilling or unsatisfactory.


  17. 10.30.12

    Thanks so much for writing this post. I’m a firm believer in finding the joy in life, so much so that it was even in my wedding vows – to fill each day with joy.

    Sometimes it’s hard to be happy, especially when times are tough, but there’s always something to be grateful and joyful about.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

    x Elena @ Randomly Happy

  18. 12.12.12
    Barb said:

    Thought-provoking post. There seems to be a difference between happiness and joy and yet, I never gave it much on how it impacts me. I have always wanted to be happy yet joy is what I want to feel and experience. Reading your thoughts/ideas on the subject and the comments others had to say about it, I realize deep inside I want joy to be the bubbling over expression of my existence.

  19. 1.22.13
    Jim said:

    Interesting, I am not sure but my initial thought is that joy and happiness are by-products, not primary products. I am also not so sure that we can separate joy and happiness into two separate categories. (Although I think there is a difference, however, i also think that happiness is part of the emotion of joy.) In other words to seek joy and happiness in and of themselves is an empty pursuit. When we rightly live life, joy/happiness is a by product of that life.

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