The Difference Between Joy and Happiness

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Dear Catholic Exchange:

Please define “joy” as opposed to “happiness.”

Mr. Maloney

Dear Mr. Maloney,

Greetings in Christ! I hope this response will adequately address your question.

In common usage, “joy” and “happiness” could very well be seen as synonyms. One could say, “I was overjoyed at his coming,” or “I was happy when he came,” and mean the same thing. However, the words have two distinct meanings and applications. Even a casual listener would distinguish between “rejoice” and “be happy.” Joy suggests a more complete, ecstatic, consuming passion than mere happiness. In short, “happiness” can be described as an emotion, while “joy” is more properly related to a state of one’s being.

By definition, happiness is a response to happenstance, contentment, good luck, prosperity, or good fortune. Happiness is also a reaction to pleasure; one can be happy when eating ice cream, reading a good book, receiving a promotion at work, or experiencing anything pleasurable. The antonym of happiness is “sadness.” The most elucidating definition of happiness, however, is this: an emotion experienced when in a state of well-being. Emotions are generally natural responses to outside influences that we do not control or will. That means that a rich or powerful man might be happy, but not necessarily joyful. Having sufficient material goods, as philosophers and moral theologians from Aristotle onward have pointed out, is not enough to satisfy the infinite longings of the human heart. Happiness is easily taken away when the “state of well-being” ceases; in times of hardship, trial, or need, happiness seems elusive. Something more satisfying is needed than the mere pleasure or contentment associated with happiness.

Joy, in contrast, is defined as an intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness or the expression of such feelings. The antonym of joy is “sorrow.” “Enjoying” (related to happiness) is not the same thing as “rejoicing.” Joy has several deeper meanings than happiness, which are further clarified in Holy Scriptures. In the Bible, joy can mean:

1. The response of the soul to a great and wonderful discovery, such as truth or communion with God.

&#8226 Luke 1:44 — For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.

&#8226 Luke 19:6 — (Zacchaeus meets Christ) And he made haste and came down; and received Him with joy.

&#8226 Luke 15:7 — I say to you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance.

2. A personal fullness or sense of completeness in one’s entire life.

&#8226 John 15:11 — These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and your joy may be filled. (cf. also Jn 17:13)

3. A deep peace which comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within a person, and lasts despite hardship.

&#8226 John 16:22 — So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take from you.

&#8226 Romans 15:13 — Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing; that you may abound in hope, and in the power of the Holy Ghost.

&#8226 2 Corinthians 8:2 — That in much experience of tribulation, they have had abundance of joy; and their very deep poverty hath abounded unto the riches of their simplicity.

&#8226 Galatians 5:22 — But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness….

4. The fruit of faith, hope, and love.

&#8226 Hebrews 10:34 — For you both had compassion on them that were in bands, and took with joy the being stripped of your own goods, knowing that you have a better and a lasting substance.

Even if these verses are translated in some editions with the word “happiness” instead of “joy,” the deeper meaning is clear; these situations are not related to prosperity or good luck but true goodness that brings lasting peace.

“Joy” can also refer to the cause of joy in another. For example, St. Paul repeatedly refers to fellow Christians as his “joy” in a manner similar to a parent who refers to his child as “his pride and joy.”

The Catechism also discusses the nature of joy and happiness. Paragraph 1723 teaches us “that true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or any human achievement…or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the source of every good and of all love.” In other words, temporal happiness is not enough to satisfy us; we long for the “joy of the Lord” (CCC 1720). Recognizing that God is our Creator and that we rely totally on Him is a “source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” (CCC 301).

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