Understanding the Difference Between Joy and Happiness Can Help You Access More of Each

Photo: Getty Images / DRAKULA IMAGES
It's super common to incorrectly use words interchangeably. For example, motivation and inspiration don't at all mean the same thing. Another pair of words that are often inaccurately used the same way? Joy and happiness, which are not, in fact, synonyms. And understanding the difference between joy and happiness is key for introducing more of each into your life.

In order to understand the difference, though, first knowing the real definition of each is necessary. "I think of happiness as little sparks of joy that are triggered because of external stimuli, external forces—not necessarily things that are just within a person, but things that are outside [are what triggers] the feeling," says happiness expert Rochelle Gapere.

"I think of happiness as little sparks of joy that are triggered because of external stimuli, external forces." —Rochelle Gapere, happiness expert

Joy, on the other hand, is something that we create within ourselves. "Joy is an emotion, a feeling from the heart," says joy strategist Grace Harry. "We release our joy because the joy is connected to our authenticity and our uniqueness. And that often doesn't work with the core [idea that] happiness is a state."

With those definitions in mind, the key difference between joy and happiness is the way we think about them. While each are important components of a positive, well life in that it's not beneficial to have more of one than the other, they’re not one and the same. Furthermore, the power in understanding them as separate entities that you can work on and access in independent ways can make tapping into each more accessible to you.

Experts In This Article
  • Grace Harry, a joy strategist, philanthropist, creative director, and life coach who believes “joy is your birthright”
  • Rochelle Gapere, Happiness coach, author of One Happy Thought at a Time: 30 Days to a Happier You

The power in understanding the difference between joy and happiness

Harry says separating the concepts of happiness and joy in your mind can help you experience joy when it seems like you can’t access happiness. Many believe a sense of positive satisfaction with life is contingent only on factors outside of the self, such as the way they look, their relationship status, money, or materials. The issue with this framing, though, is that it often leads folks to look for happiness outside of themselves, when really, it stems from joy, which comes from within. “[Commercial happiness] cements the idea that we need something outside of ourselves, an intermediary to connect a source, or something that we don't already have in our being, to achieve it,” says Harry.

When you’ve internalized the notion that happiness depends on external factors—many of which you can't control—it’s definitely beneficial to turn to joy, which is often much easier to tap into because it starts and ends with you. “Joy just takes going back into the places that you've exercised this joy muscle before,” says Harry. To exercise that joy muscle, Harry recommends thinking of a time when you experienced the emotion—whether that was taking a walk around your neighborhood, jumping rope, or having a self-care moment—and trying your best to re-create that memory in the present. 

In effect, the difference between joy in happiness is rooted in how you conceptualize and interact with the concepts, but that understanding can be meaningful because it can help you detach yourself from the idea that a state of happiness spontaneously comes from outside forces without a baseline understanding of what brings you feelings of joy.

“Once we have agency, it gives us more power, and it's less, ‘Oh, what's happening outside of me?’ and more ‘What's happening within me?’” says Gapere. And by increasing the joy you experience within, you stand to have a boundless state of joyful happiness as you go about your life—regardless of the forces outside of yourself.

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