Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Joy?

I realized after writing a series on Philippians for my SoulShaper group that I was still struggling with understanding joy. I’d worked my way through the whole book of the bible known for its theme of joy and I still felt unclear about it. I mean, I knew we’re supposed to be joyful people, I knew Paul’s joy is based on his relationship with Christ and not dependent on his circumstances, but it still felt like a squishy concept. Like every time I think about it, it’s almost within reach, but not quite. I feel like I’m missing something important. 

I viscerally understand anger. I totally get curiosity. I don’t feel that way about joy. What do writers do when they want to understand something better? They write! First, I spent some time in a variety of verses about joy to get an overall feeling about what the rest of the Bible has to say about it. When you search the topic of joy online, much of what you find is talking about the difference between happiness and joy, so that’s what today’s post is about. I have a different opinion than most of the internet!

Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Joy?

As I sift through what our culture believes about joy, it’s surprisingly similar to what the church seems to believe. There are Huffpost articles, psychology articles, and independent writers who, when defining joy, tend to point out how it’s different from happiness. It seems that in order to figure out what it is, we need to separate it from what it’s not. It’s not happiness and it’s not an emotion. Randy Alcorn says that the idea that “joy is not an emotion” is “a statement that appears online more than 17,000 times”. A Huffpost article says, “unlike happiness which feels very fleeting, joy seems to imply a lasting state of contentment”.

Christian culture says the same thing. If you google the difference between happiness and joy, you’ll find pastors, authors, and writers who say it over and over. But, it’s never quite landed for me.

Here are the Merriam-Webster definitions of the two nouns, “happiness” and “joy”:

Happiness

1a: a state of well-being and contentment : JOY
1b: a pleasurable or satisfying experience

Joy

1a: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : DELIGHT
1b: the expression or exhibition of such emotion : GAIETY
2: a state of happiness or felicity : BLISS
3: a source or cause of delight

For those of you whose elementary grammar definitions happened decades ago, synonyms are words or phrases that mean exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase. One synonym for happiness is joy. It’s actually listed above right in the definition. And happiness is listed as a synonym for joy as well. Clearly, the dictionary thinks they’re basically the same thing. As a writer and occasional Scrabble/Words With Friends player, I’ve been taught that the dictionary has the final word. It’s “the buck stops here” location for all things words.

Of course, we wouldn’t need an Urban Dictionary if cultural word usage always lined up with what the dictionary says, but the more I think about this, the more I feel it’s all a  distraction. A shifting of meaning that focuses our attention away from the important issue.

John Piper says,“If you have nice little categories for ‘joy is what Christians have’ and ‘happiness is what the world has,’ you can scrap those when you go to the Bible, because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.”

What Does the Bible Say?

No matter what our American culture and our Christian culture say, as a believer, my “buck stops here” location is the Word of God. As I look at all the verses and dig into the original language, here’s what I find:

What's the difference between happiness and joy?Randy Alcorn summarizes it well when he says,

Here’s a sampling of the more than one hundred Bible verses in various translations that use joy and happiness together:

For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. (Esther 8:16, NIV)

I will turn their mourning into joy. . . and bring happiness out of grief. (Jeremiah 31:13, HCSB)

Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:25, NLT)

The relationship between joy and happiness in these passages refutes two common claims: (1) that the Bible doesn’t talk about happiness, and (2) that joy and happiness have contrasting meanings. In fact, the Bible overflows with accounts of God’s people being happy in him.

Depicting joy in contrast with happiness has obscured the true meaning of both words. Joyful people are typically glad and cheerful—they smile and laugh a lot. To put it plainly, they’re happy!

The word used in the New Testament for joy is chara. According to Precept Austin, chara, “is [a] Greek noun which describes a feeling of inner gladness, delight or rejoicing…Joy in the NT is virtually always used to signify a feeling of “happiness” that is based on spiritual realities (and independent of what “happens”).…It is a depth of assurance and confidence that ignites a cheerful heart. It is a cheerful heart that leads to cheerful behavior.”

It seems to me that the Bible backs up the dictionary on this one. No matter what your favorite pastor says, I think joy and happiness are basically the same things. So, practically speaking, I can understand joy to be the same thing as happiness.

The Definition Isn’t the Whole Story!

It’s not the emotion itself, the actual feeling or experience that’s different for a Christ-follower. But, there is a difference. I believe that a Christian does have a significantly different experience of joy than a non-Christian. Why? Because the source of our joy is different. Our joy, our happiness isn’t different in and of itself. But, where it comes from could not be more different.

A Non-Christian’s Source of Joy

I read a lot of articles about finding joy in the research for this series. I read about what Christian culture says. After writing the Philippians study and and sifting through all the other verses about joy, I understood what the Bible said. I wanted to know what our culture said. Many secular articles I read drew a distinction between happiness and joy.

But many didn’t. The ones that didn’t suggested that joy is found in pleasure, in reduced stress, or in achievement. But, many articles talked about the fleeting, external, circumstantial, and emotional nature of happiness versus the lasting, internal, and meaning-based nature of joy. They suggested that joy is found in service, in love and relationships, or in a healthy mindset. For example one article described the path to joy being found in quieting your mind with meditation, cutting down on social media, keeping a journal and practicing gratitude.

None of these things are wrong. Volunteerism, healthy relationships, and a positive mindset are great. But a Christian finds joy in more than these. They’re secondary to the main source of our joy.

A Christian’s Source of Joy

The reason a Christian is joyful in all circumstances, at all times, and in all places, is that the source of our joy is permanent, eternal, and always available. It never changes. Our source of joy is God himself. Like a non-Christian, I might find happiness in a perfectly baked chocolate chip cookie, in serving at the local food pantry, or in cutting down my social media scrolling. But that happiness doesn’t last for me, just as it doesn’t last for a non-believer. It’s based on something temporary. And believe me, chocolate chip cookies are extremely temporary in my house!

My richest happiness, a joy that never goes away, is the one that springs from my relationship with Christ.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8—9)

Our joy is permanent. It’s a result of our belief in and relationship with a holy, good, just, loving, eternal, all-powerful God. It’s the result of the good news of our salvation through faith in Jesus.

The difference between happiness and joy is the wrong question. It’s a distraction. Where does your joy come from? That’s the question we should be asking!

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