“The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy is a liquid.” – J.D. Salinger
I was one of twenty-five girls sitting in a circle, holding hands outside of the gymnasium while we anxiously waited to find out if our names would be called at the Junior High cheerleading tryouts. After an agonizing hour wait, the judges walked out of the double doors, one smiled as she looked upon us and said, “You all did a wonderful job! As you know we only have 10 spots on the squad and if your name is not called don’t give up, try again next year.”
I closed my eyes waiting to hear my name, after nine names were called, everyone was squeezing hands tighter as she announced the last name, it was mine! I will never forget that moment, how happy I was that I worked so hard and made the cheerleading squad! However, that happiness was short lived.
After all ten names were called, I realized very quickly that I was the only seventh grader who made the squad. My three friends who tried out with me smugly congratulated me then began whispering and walked away so fast it was as if I had a disease. It was strange to feel such happiness replaced with unhappiness within minutes. My happiness was very short lived.
“The most joyful places on the planet…”
Earlier this week I came across a National Geographic Magazine that my friend, who now lives in Costa Rica, lent to me a few years ago [sorry Ashley, I’ll return it I promise]. The title of that issue was “The Search for Happiness. What we can learn from Costa Rica, Denmak, and Singapore –the most joyful places on the planet.”
The article highlights research findings on world research regarding what it means to be happy. Every year the Gallup World Polls tries to figure that out by using dozens of questions to measure happiness over 140 countries. Its themes are:
- How people see their lives as a whole
- Their daily happiness and
- Their physical health
The article did a great job of explaining why these people were carefree and happy, but it didn’t really distinguish between happiness and joy, which many researchers find are similar, yet very different.
“Happiness is smiling when the sun’s out. Joy is dancing in the downpour…”
- Happiness is a moment, Joy is a lifetime
- Happiness is based on what is happening around us. Joy is based on what is happening within us.
- Happiness = a feeling based on circumstances. Joy = an attitude that defies circumstance
- Happy: outward expression, temporary, can be experienced from any good activity, food or company. Joy: Inward peace and contentment, lasting. A byproduct of a moral lifestyle.
- Happiness is smiling when the sun’s out. Joy is dancing in the downpour.
I can recall saying to myself many times in my life “I just want to be happy”, not really thinking about what joy was; I basically thought they were one in the same. When you look at the research out there on the differences between happiness and joy, I have concluded that I would much rather be filled with joy deep inside than only have fleeing moments of happiness.
However, I love being happy. Happiness is sort of like a drug, when we are happy it is because we are releasing different chemicals in the brain.
- Endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers produced in response to physical discomfort. However, they also play an important role in reducing stress and anxiety. Something all of us probably have a little more of these days due to the global pandemic that has thrown many metaphorical wrenches into most things.
- Dopamine is triggered with reward. When you see the finish line at a marathon, your brain releases dopamine. It is nature’s reserve tank of energy. If our bodies always released dopamine, our energy would be diminished when we needed it most.
- Oxytocin plays a role in bonding, sometimes called the “happy/love” hormone released upon physical contact. Oxytocin provides feelings of love and trust which is why relationships, like those between a mother and infant or two romantic partners, can boost happiness. However, we do not feel “oxytocin happiness” all of the time because there’s no survival value in trusting everyone all of the time.
- Serotonin helps regulate anxiety and depression. Eating carbohydrates may boost the amount of tryptophan in your brain; which is then converted into serotonin. No wonder a big bowl of pasta or a yummy piece of pizza makes me so happy!
If you expect to feel happiness and happy chemicals all the time, the hard truth is, you’re going to be disappointed. Happiness comes and goes. Joy, on the other hand, is more consistent and cultivated internally.
Not long after I read that National Geographic article, I was struggling with many changes that were happening in my life and I began researching the differences between joy and happiness when I came across a video of Matthew McConaughey. No, he is not a scientist, but he did deliver an amazing motivational speech to the 2015 graduating class at the University of Houston. He talked about 13 things that he has learned along the way in his journey of life, including his take on the difference between happiness and joy that stuck with me.
“Happiness is an emotional response to an outcome. If I win, I will be happy. If I don’t, I won’t.
It’s an if, then cause and effect, quid pro quo standard that we cannot sustain, because we immediately raise it every time we attain it.
See, happiness demands a certain outcome. It is result reliant. And I say if happiness is what you’re after, then you’re going to be let down frequently and you’re going to be unhappy much of your time.”
Joy, though, joy is a different thing. It’s something else. Joy is not a choice. It’s not a response to some result. It’s a constant. Joy is the feeling that we have from doing what we are fashioned to do, no matter the outcome.”
Of course, we all want to be happy. Who wakes up and says, “I want to be unhappy today.” It feels good to laugh, smile and have our brains exploding with happiness hormones. However, if you are only relying on those external moments to fulfill you, then I believe you are going to be very disappointed while you keep searching for your next happiness high.
Even though there are similarities in joy and happiness, it is possible to be a joyful person even when you are unhappy. Unlike happiness, joy is not external, joy comes when:
- You are grateful for your life experiences, good and bad, for they have molded who you are
- You are grateful for what you have in your life, no matter how small
- You are kind to others, which is your way of providing (not seeking) external happiness for others
- You are at peace with who you are inside, you love yourself
- As Matthew McConaughey said, that feeling we have from doing what we are fashioned to do, no matter the outcome.
Life is full of ups and downs, sadness, anger, happiness, unhappiness and seventh graders who can wipe away an external happy feeling in seconds. If you are filled with joy, you will be able to get through those unhappy moments and hardships a little quicker and easier because you will have a sense of peace inside that only you have created.
Having people and “things” contribute to your happiness is ok, but you can’t only rely on those people and those “things” to bring you joy. No one is in charge of your own happiness and joy except you, you are in control, take charge!
Remember, You Got This!