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Happiness versus Joy

Americans are quite unhappy (see for example, the recent Gallop Mood of the Nation poll). And, there is a lot to be unhappy about. However, I think happiness is the wrong metric. Happiness is circumstantial and transitory. I feel happy when someone says something nice to me. If I am unhappy, I believe that I would be happier if I had a new pair of shoes or a new car. And, then, some people just have happier dispositions than others.

In contrast, joy is a deep and life-pervading emotion. I have felt great joy in moments of discomfort, even pain. When I walked the Camino Frances, with excruciating blisters, I was often joyfully enraptured—but, I wasn’t effervescently happy. However, in the evening, resting my feet and talking with fellow pilgrims, I was quite happy—and still joyful.

Seeking joy will increase our happiness awareness. Filled with joy, it is easy to see the little pleasures—to feel happy. However, chasing after happiness can leave us feeling unfulfilled—less happy and less joyful. The pursuit of happiness is often fraught with excess and hedonism. The pursuit of joy leads to pushing our boundaries, improving the world and ourselves in the process. The root of joy is from the Latin gaudia, to rejoice (Meriam Webster). As the Diffen website explains, “While happiness comes from outside things, joy is about [the] inner self.” Happiness is rooted in earthly experiences or material objects, whereas joy is achieved through spiritual experiences, caring for others, or thankfulness.

I appreciate the growing conversations about the importance of self-care and how self-care rather than being selfish, is critically important for resisting oppression. However, I think we have confused what is true self-care. A lot of suggested self-care activities are designed to increase happiness, rather than joy. Although there is nothing wrong with a face mask, is it really going to give us the insight, commitment, and faith necessary to address capitalism, racism, misogyny, or climate change? I don’t think it is happiness, but rather joy, that provides the fuel to continue to resist oppression—the perseverance to see where action is possible and have the courage to take a step in that direction. Life Coach Rachel Fearnly explains that joy requires that you make peace with who you are, why you are, and how you are. To cultivate joy, Fearnly suggests:

1. Create space to hear what brings you joy. This can be a mediation practices, or another form of finding quiet.

2. Reduce inputs that trigger thoughts of “should’s”—should have, should do, should like, etc. As the saying goes, we want to stop “shoulding” all over ourselves. For many of us, this can best be accomplished through controlling our use of social media.

3. Use a gratitude practice to notice things that bring you joy. In the process of noticing that which brings you joy, you may also notice challenges that are opportunities to develop new strengths, as well as obstacles that you need to avoid or try to eliminate.

All of these self-care practices are free—but not as instantaneously pleasurable as many of the marketed self-care activities. They are life-changing: both in the practice and in the outcomes.

It is almost four years since I completed the 800 kilometer (500 mile) Camino—and, I am still absorbing and growing into the lessons that the pilgrimage initiated. My regular joy practices keep me fueled for the work that I believe is my contribution in life. As I feel more authentically, I more deeply feel happiness—and sorrow. I have never been more joyful, and I expect my joy will only continue to grow. How will you nourish your joy today?

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