Yes, There’s A Difference Between Happiness & Joy: A Psychologist Explains

Happiness and joy. Both positive, cheerful, synonyms, no? You may use them interchangeably in everyday conversation, but according to clinical psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D., what truly brings you joy isn’t the same as what makes you happy. It’s not just about semantics: As she shares on the mindbodygreen podcast, there’s a stark, major difference between happiness and joy, and it’s crucial to differentiate the two. 

Below, what it really means to cultivate happiness versus joy, and how to create the most meaning.

The difference between happiness and joy, explained. 

According to Tsabary, happiness comes from external experiences. “Happiness could come from your Bentley or your cute wife,” she notes. “And therefore, when your Bentley breaks down or your wife leaves you, you’re like, ‘I’m not happy anymore.'”

Joy, on the other hand, stems from within: “Joy comes from only living in the moment,” she says. You don’t need any objects or experiences to embrace the present moment, which makes joy a much more powerful force. 

That’s why, according to Tsabary, happiness is a temporary experience, whereas joy is permanent: “Happiness is transient because anything obtained from the external world is ephemeral. But joy is between you and your connection to your authentic present moment. That is as permanent as anything can be.” 

How to cultivate joy.

The question, of course, becomes: Well, how do I connect to the present moment and embrace joy? It’s a bit more difficult than it sounds, but luckily Tsabary has a few points of guidance:

  1. Meditation: “Meditation is to understand that life is only lived in the present moment,” she says. “When we embrace that, we embrace both impermanence and interconnectivity at the same time. We see how our actions in the moment affect the next moment, and we are very attuned, very aware, very awake. And then that’s where joy comes from.” Try this grounding, 10-minute guided meditation to tune inward.
  2. Embrace the ordinary: “Because we are capitalists and consumerists, we have forgotten that it is in the ordinary moments where the greatest joy lies,” Tsabary adds. “But I do believe the pandemic is teaching us a harsh lesson, a quick crash course in how to return to the ordinary moment.” When you embrace an ordinary moment—a (socially distant) walk in nature, perhaps—you may find a bigger sense of fulfillment than you ever thought possible. Connect to that moment, and you may locate that permanent sense of joy. 
  3. Helping others: For Tsabary, herself, helping others is what connects her to the present moment (along with some meditation, of course). “I create my joy by teaching and being passionate about helping people alleviate their suffering,” she notes. There’s research behind the fact that helping others enhances your mental health—so find an avenue you’re passionate about and do what you can to make your mark. Chances are, true joy will serve as the reward. 

The takeaway. 

When you truly partake in some much-needed reflection, happiness and joy are not so synonymous. While happiness is fleeting—a bubble of cheer from something external—true joy lies within, and no person or item is responsible for the emotion. That’s why it’s permanent: It lives inside, and it’s always there at your disposal—it may just take a bit of legwork to develop.


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