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Happiness vs. Joy – What’s the difference?

Happiness vs. Joy – What’s the difference?

Most people would say they are synonymous, but I believe there is a stark difference between the two. Before we dive into that, let’s look at their definitions.  

Happy is defined as feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. 

Joy is defined as the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires. 

Another way I think about the two is that being Happy is a feeling that we experience at any given moment and it is finite. Something happens in our lives that makes us happy and we get a surge of dopamine – it feels good, we smile, become relaxed, and maybe we break into a little dance! Eventually, our mood returns to baseline, this is a reality – in fact, if you were happy 24/7 I might want you examined to determine if you are a sociopath. I also don’t think your brain could handle the constant surge of dopamine it would experience. 

Whereas Joy, I see as the culmination of the moments in life where we experience the feeling of being happy, but experiencing joy in our lives isn’t just about the moments in life, it is also about fulfillment in our lives – from success, helping others, and good fortune. 

I sometimes think people have gone astray in their quest for Joy. What I mean by that is I often see people who have a number of happy moments in their life – ie. getting married, going travelling, etc., but they tell me their lives are not actually joyful. I think the problem is 2-fold. 


1) From a biology perspective (you know how much I love biology), if we look at the humans of 10,000 years ago, our focus was entirely on immediate rewards. You were thirsty – brain says, ‘go find water.’ You find water and your thirst is quenched. Dopamine is released, reward received and you move on. Similarly with finding food or shelter. You were not thinking about whether your water source today was going to be there tomorrow. So our brains are hardwired for immediate rewards. To seek out those moments of happiness! 

2) This is the trend our society has created. We see people posting on Instagram or advertisements showing X, and everyone in those photos seems so happy and one would think they are living a joyful life! So we see that and think that we need to experience and do similar things in order to find happiness and joy in our lives. Travelling to exotic places, buying the newest phone, car, or getting likes on Instagram – those will be the things that make us happy. Which is likely true. Those things may create moments where you feel happy, but in the grand scheme of your life does it add to or create joy? Maybe. 

I feel that people in their quest for joy are always seeking that next happy moment. As they believe that is the key to a joyful life. It could be for some, context is everything, but I would argue for many it is not. I believe this is really where we need to look at the bigger picture. Hopefully, you are all well attuned to me saying this but, I believe the key to finding joy in our lives comes down to 2 things:

  • What is it that is really important to us in life? What do we value? 
  • How can we help others along the way? 

I want to make another blog post about this, but helping others doesn’t mean you have to go work in a soup kitchen. Helping others can be as simple as smiling at another human. Sharing a laugh with a stranger. Embracing each other, our imperfections and realizing that we are all humans doing the best we can every day. 

I would love to hear how you are cultivating joy in your life? 

-Dr. Dan 


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