Monday, January 22, 2007

Happiness versus Joy

“Happy” or “happiness” is a word that has become so cliché; its meaning has become so very broad and vague, to the point of even usurping the seats of other words, for example “joy.” Still, whatever your definition of happiness, one thing is clear: it is a good word—a desirable word that one would like to describe one’s life.

But lately, I find myself wondering about the words “happiness” and “joy.” The two words are nouns with practically the same definition. However, even from the way each word sounds, it seems joy is a deeper level of happiness, that where happiness is still learning, joy has already mastered. While happiness seems instantaneous and short-lived, joy seems more delayed and long-lived. While happiness seems to require little effort, joy seems to require comparably more effort. Yes, the two words are similar, and for all intents and purposes, they are identical. Still, for a while now, I have felt there is a fundamental difference between the two words, that one is more important or desirable than the other.

Sometimes, the importance of a word is evident because of the extent to which it occurs. To get an inkling of the relative importance of these words to people, I checked the web. When I googled “happiness” today, I had approximately 70 million results in 0.06 seconds, while googling “joy” returned 11 million results in 0.26 seconds. I also googled “rejoice” (since, according to Merriam-Webster Online, joy is akin to the Greek word for “to rejoice”), and I got approximately 12 million results in 0.12 seconds. So, it seems people talk a lot more about "happiness" than they do about "joy." Then I went to, to search the bible to see how many times these three words occurred. The result (in the NIV version): happiness=6 joy=242 rejoice=156. The bible's result is the opposite of Google’s, which is not at all surprising.

As I thought about these two words, I realized that I could imagine people being addicted to happiness, because it offers brief periods of emotional high. Such people would have a strong aversion to discomfort, inconvenience, and the like, in people or in life situations. They might make horrible friends or partners because they make themselves conveniently absent during trying times. They might also be fickle, selfish, or manipulative by nature. However, when I thought of joy, the way it sounds and so on, I could not readily think of it as the object of someone's addiction. Nevertheless, in my imagination, it was clear that such a person would be of a more admirable character (compared to the happiness counterpart). Why did this seem so?

After many thoughts about these two words, I now feel that I can finally articulate that fundamental difference that had been at the tip of my tongue all this time. My conclusion came about by considering the input from two recent sources. Under each source, I have included my train of thought.

P.S. If you want to expand my thought or offer a different view, you are welcome to send me an email. I'd be happy to "see" your thoughts.

My two sources:
(1) The movie, The Pursuit of happyness, starring Will Smith. In the end, the movie addresses the issue that happiness may be something we can only pursue, not possess. Somewhat along that line, I think that happiness is a transient state of being, because one minute we could be the happiest people in the world (because we received a surprise gift, got the job we applied for, conquered a habit, or won a trip to an exotic island), but the next minute we are not (because the surprise gift is horrible or we didn’t get the job, are still controlled by a habit, or didn’t win a trip to anywhere). In other words, happiness is dependent on favorable conditions; it does not reveal its head when things become ugly. It is (or can be) the “high” of life that motivates us to move forward, to chase after life. At one moment, we have it and it delights our mind and excites our soul, then it slips out from our grasp. Then we chase after it until we capture it again. Therefore, in life, we play “capture and lose” with happiness—and this is not a bad thing, since it can motivate us to dream, to set goals, to imagine a better tomorrow, and to appreciate the happy events.

(2) The word of God, specifically the short verse that says, “Be joyful always” (1 Thess. 5:16). When I read this verse, I was troubled, because I knew that in the course of any one day, I wouldn’t say I was ALWAYS with joy. As if to make sure I understood that this was God’s expectation for me, he also says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Then elsewhere he also says, “Rejoice in [your] suffering” (Rom. 5:3), and this verse finally clarified things for me. It allowed me to see that when God referred to joy, I (like most people do) had equated it with mere happiness, and as I had already intuitively figured out, happiness does not stick around during suffering. In my deduction, happiness and joy, although related, have one fundamental difference between them: happiness is situation-dependent, while joy is not. Another way of saying it is that joy has the ability to capture happiness even as it tries to run away during difficult or unfavorable times—joy is happiness permanently captured. A joyful life is life that has cured happiness of its fickleness and aversion to undesirable times or events. With joy in one’s heart, one can get happiness to commit, to say, “For you only, I will stay, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

With joy, a man who has just lost his entire family, his home--everything--can still wake up one morning and say, “Wow, I have not seen a more beautiful sunrise.” Armed with joy, a survivor of -------- (fill in the blank) can still feel that “God is good” or that “People are good.”

So what does this mean? Well…those who are joyful are happy (overall). But those who are happy are not necessarily joyful…only time and life will tell.

What is the secret of being joyful? The secret that I know of and that has been working for me is making every effort to trust God, to trust his words that “In all things [He] works for the good of those who love him.”

I hope your life is seasoned with joy!!

Technorati tag: