joy (n) 1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation: She felt the joy of seeing her son's success. 2. a source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated: Her prose style is a pure joy. 3. the expression or display of glad feeling; festive gaiety. 4. a state of happiness or felicity. (Dictionary.com, based on Random House Dictionary)The definition, etymology, and synonyms seem to me to miss something crucial about joy. They do, of course, capture common usage. Moreover, happiness is an important spiritual quality and practice. Understanding our capacity for ebullience and rejoicing, how happiness happens (which isn’t the way most of us tend to presume), and cultivating the habits of delight at “ordinary” things we encounter – these are crucial aspects of spiritual growth, and I hope this month’s exploration of joy will help with these. Becoming happier people is an integral part of becoming more joyous people.
joy (n) c. 1200, "feeling of pleasure and delight;" c. 1300, "source of pleasure or happiness," from Old French joie "pleasure, delight, erotic pleasure, bliss, joyfulness" (11c.), from Latin gaudia "expressions of pleasure; sensual delight," plural of gaudium "joy, inward joy, gladness, delight; source of pleasure or delight," from gaudere "rejoice," from PIE root *gau- "to rejoice." (Online Etymology Dictionary)
joy synonyms: bliss, delight, elation, glee, humor, wonder, ecstasy, exultation, gaiety, gladness, jubilance, rapture
There’s also something about joy that goes beyond happiness, delight, ebullience. Faith, hope, peace, love, joy – on this standard list of spiritual qualities or blessings, joy is a natural part of the “package.” Happiness, however, has a different feel to it. We can have happy moments, but joy often connotes a more abiding quality. Happiness is the opposite of sadness, but joy, I want to say, can be present amid sadness.
We listen to the blues, or other sad songs, or go to sad movies or read sad novels, because it feels good to feel. It’s part of being alive, and, as Rachel Naomi Remen says on our quotations page, “Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness.” When grief turns away from bitterness into an affirmation of, and gratitude for, the beauty and value of that which has been lost, then grief connects us with the fundamental goodness of life and this world. In that connection, there is joy – but I wouldn’t call it happiness. Sharing tears, like sharing laughter, is an entrance-way into human community and the human family – a leaning in to the fullness of reality rather than a bitter retreat from parts of it. We discover in that reality an underlying joy.
The temporary exultation of things going well is one thing, and the abiding sense that you belong, no matter how things are going is something quite different: the former is better designated “happiness,” the latter, “joy.” When we face reality without filtering out the parts we don’t like, without turning away from the hard parts even for a moment, our own belongingness in that reality grows more secure. That’s why, I think, joy, not happiness, is on the list with peace, hope, faith, and love.
Still, if you want to cultivate joy, then cultivate happiness. Indeed, peace, hope, faith, and love are all pretty difficult if you’re unhappy. The more we find of happiness in our everyday life, the stronger is the foundation of joy supporting us even when grief comes.