On the Possibility of Happiness: Part 2, What is Joy?

Growing up in my little church I often heard in my Sunday School classes that there was a difference between happiness and joy. It's a pretty ubiquitous Christian meme. I'm sure you've heard it before. But what does it mean?

When I probed this formulation as a child I found that illumination wasn't often forthcoming. Happiness, I was told, was immediate, hedonic, and fleeting. Joy, by contrast, was sturdy and enduring, even in the most difficult of circumstances. The point being that, when life gets tough, you can still have joy while not being happy.

Fair enough, but who, exactly, in the world thinks happiness of this sort is better than joy? If you're using happiness as a synonym for instant gratification then just say so. But, then, if all you're saying is that joy is better than instant gratification I can't see this as a particularly profound, or even uniquely Christian, observation. It's a straw man dressed up as wisdom.

My sense is that, when most people say they want to be happy they are, in fact, saying they want joy. I think happiness and joy are pretty much synonymous.

True, the word "happy" has been degraded a bit. But so has the word love. But that doesn't mean that happiness is distinct from joy, just that when we use the word happy (or love) we take the time to clarify that we are not using its degraded meaning ("Have a happy day!" or "I love peanut butter!"). Ways I see people do this is by adding an adverb to happy. I am truly happy. Deeply happy. When someone tells me they are truly and deeply happy I know they are not talking about instant gratification. They are talking about joy.

Still, when we talk about being truly happy we are often making a commentary about our environment. When we inquire as to why someone might be truly happy my guess is that they would report that the important things in life are all in order: Loved ones are close and safe, friendships are rich, work and other pursuits are rewarding and fulfilling. We look over this scene and sigh, "I am truly happy."

But what if life isn't going well? Where is happiness, even true happiness, during difficult times?

If that old Sunday School meme was trying to get at something important it was trying to get after this. The notion that joy could be found in any circumstance. Even in the face of grief or pain.

Which means that joy has to be an internal state. That was the point of my last post. Happiness isn't about external circumstances but about internal dispositions.

So what is this internal disposition? What, exactly, is joy?

I'm not exactly sure, but I'll give you my best guess. At root, when people talk about joy or deep happiness they are talking about gratitude.

I believe this for a couple of different reasons. First, the science of happiness tells us that gratitude is the trait most characteristic of the happiest people in the world. Second, if you look at my posts about the impossibility of happiness gratitude seems to be the antidote to many of the psychological dynamics associated with unhappiness. Take habituation and boredom. We often get "used to" stuff. Our jobs or spouse or house. But gratitude cracks habituation. If you feel grateful for your job, spouse, or house you fend off habituation. Gratitude keeps you happy. Consider also how we make relative comparisons, how the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Again, gratitude thwarts this dynamic. When you feel grateful for what you have you're not as envious. Gratitude again keeps you happy. And this happiness is starting to look a lot like contentment. Which my Sunday School teachers told me was a sign of joy.

Finally, gratitude can exist in both happiness and heartache. Things don't have to be going well to feel gratitude. In fact, it's in the face of loss when we often feel most grateful. Not for the loss, but for the gift that I was allowed, if only briefly, to experience. So gratitude can be infused with sadness and grief.

All this makes me think that gratitude is what Christians are talking about when they talk about joy or being truly happy. Gratitude characterizes the happiest people in the world. But it is also found in the middle of loss, heartache, and sadness. And, finally, gratitude thwarts the dynamics of unhappiness. Gratitude produces contentment.

So what is joy? I'm not sure, but this is my best guess. I think joy is another name for gratitude.

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