Happiness and Joy

Bill Abbate

If you had to choose between happiness and joy, which would you want? Many do not realize there is a difference between the two, yet it is significant.

Let’s clarify the real meanings of happiness and joy, how they impact our lives, and how we can find more of each.

Happiness and Joy

Most dictionary definitions fall short of describing joy and happiness. Where the real distinction becomes clear is in spiritual and psychological circles.

The two words are often used together, as in “joy and happiness.” They are practically synonymous in most dictionaries, yet they provide vastly different experiences.

Did you know you can be happy but not joyful, and you can be joyful without happiness?

For example, when someone compliments you, it can make you feel happy. The next moment you can learn someone died, the happiness leaves, and immediately you feel sad. Why is this? Because happiness is a fleeting emotion affected by outside circumstances.

Joy resides in you, which is why someone says they are “filled” with joy. You can be filled with joy and still experience happiness or sadness. More on this later.

To use the phrase “joy and happiness” correctly, you must understand that joy is internal while happiness is affected by the external. Joy is longer lasting, and happiness is more fleeting.

The simplest way to remember the difference between the two is:

  • Happiness is affected by outside circumstances and can pass quickly
  • Joy resides in you (being “filled” with joy), unaffected by external circumstances, and longer lasting

Let’s look at each of the terms more closely.


Worldly and material things are at the base of happiness. Since happiness is affected by the external, events and circumstances can trigger it. Your five senses can also trigger happiness.

Almost everyone has had the experience of being happy because of a birthday party, going out for a special dinner, seeing old friends at a school reunion, and countless other events. Circumstances can create happiness, such as when something good happens to you or someone else.

When it comes to how you experience happiness through your senses, the following are only a few of hundreds of potential examples:

  • Hearing -music, sounds of nature such as rain, waterfalls, birds, etc.
  • Sight — anything aesthetically pleasing or beautiful
  • Taste — scrumptious foods, refreshing drinks, desserts, chocolate (makes me happy anyway!)
  • Smell — anything fragrant, the smell of certain foods, smells of nature, etc.
  • Touch — a soothing massage, a hug, holding hands, etc.

Notice the things that bring us happiness through the senses are usually temporary and short-lived.

While it is often said money cannot buy happiness, I take another view. Money can not only buy happiness; enough money can buy a lot of it! The only problem with money is you cannot buy lasting happiness because it doesn’t exist in this earthly realm. Over time what once made you happy will change. Plenty of people with money chase happiness only to be left unfulfilled.

One way a wealthy person can find fulfillment is to use their money to help others. This can give them joy and happiness, one reason the wealthy turn to philanthropy. So long as they are helping others selflessly, they can gain much joy. Should selfishness be involved, it will not last. Sure, being selfish can bring brief moments of happiness or self-satisfaction, but it will quickly dissipate.

“Happiness is like rising bubbles — delightful and inevitably fleeting. Joy is the oxygen — ever present.” Danielle LaPorte (1969-present)


Where happiness comes from the external through your emotions, joy is internal and unaffected by external circumstances. Joy comes from being thankful, grateful, and appreciative. It comes from giving, caring for others, spiritual experiences, and a moral lifestyle.

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.” Richard Wagner (1813–1883)

Joy is long-lasting inward peace and contentment.

Joy can come from knowing who you are and what you believe. You will find true joy by appreciating those you love, such as your spouse, children, grandchildren, close friends, and relatives.

Joy has staying power and remains regardless of what is happening. For Christians, everlasting joy comes from having a personal relationship with Jesus and receiving His saving grace.

As stated, material things like money can bring you joy when used selflessly, as when helping others. Money can also bring happiness for a time, but like all material things, it is temporary.

“There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.” Khalil Gibran (1883–1932)

The impact of Joy

“Find a place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” Joseph Campbell (1904–1987)

Let me relate a personal experience of the impact of joy vs. happiness in my life. A few years ago, my wife of 32 years got cancer. Her diagnosis was she could live 3 to 5 years. Within six months, she died.

Watching her go through the suffering she endured those few months was difficult. I met Charlotte in high school and married soon after graduation. We had an amazing life together. She always encouraged and supported me. Yet there she was, dying.

I remember leaving the hospital on the morning of her death. I was devastated. I had always thought we would grow old and die together, yet at 51 years old, she was gone.

Looking back, I see why I survived the terrible time after her death. Was I happy? Not hardly. I was as sad as sad can be. Yet I had hope. Our life together brought me great joy in many ways.

“Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” C. S. Lewis (1898–1963)

Our daughter was part of that joy. Yet, more importantly, it was the joy God planted deep in my heart. Because of Charlotte, I came to know the Lord and accepted Him. My personal relationship with Christ held me up. I never lost the deep joy of knowing I will see her again one day. Because of this hope and joy, I have arrived where I am today.

“If you carry joy in your heart, you can heal any moment.” Carlos Santana (1947-present)

God has given me a second chance at life with Jane, my wife, a wonderful Christian woman. We share a common faith in Christ and put Him first in every area of our lives. Our relationship with one another fills my heart with overflowing joy!

“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Pierre de Chardin (1881–1955)

Final thoughts

Back to our original question, which would you choose if you could only have one — joy or happiness? There is no contest when you know the difference between the two.

How can you fill your life and heart with lasting joy? You can start by:

  • Being selfless, helping and caring for others
  • Making a genuine spiritual connection with God
  • Living a moral lifestyle
  • Being grateful for all you have received
  • Appreciating those in your life, especially those closest to you

Doing any or preferably all of the above will give you a good start on creating a joy-filled life.

What else could you do? I would love to hear your suggestions in the comment section below!

I leave you with the words of someone who showed by example what it is to live a long, joyful life.

“Joy is prayer. Joy is strength. Joy is love. Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls. God loves a cheerful giver. She [or he] gives most who gives with joy.” Mother Teresa (1910–1997)

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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