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Joy vs. Happiness: Understanding the Difference

When it comes to joy vs. happiness, these emotions are often confused with one another. However, they have different meanings and implications. Understanding the difference between joy and happiness is important, as it can help your family prioritize what’s most essential and appreciate life in a much deeper and more meaningful way.  

To explore this topic, we spoke to Katherine Atherton, a therapist at OPI, a young adult transitional living program in California. 

Defining Happiness

Happiness is a feeling of contentment or satisfaction in the present moment, based on what we do and how we behave. It can be fleeting, as it’s based on external factors and is a reflection of something happening to you. 

Is happiness an emotion?

Yes, happiness is an emotion, just like sadness is an emotion. Atherton explained that when feeling an emotion, you’re responding to a trigger. Happiness can be triggered by situations, people, events, or even thoughts.  

Examples of happiness

Happiness can be a very intense emotion and can feel like a dopamine-type hit when experienced, making you feel good. Examples of happiness include feeling good when you: 

  • Exercise. 
  • Spend time with loved ones who support you, like friends and family. 
  • Spend time outside. 
  • Do purposeful work.
  • Do activities you enjoy. 

Defining Joy

Joy is a deeper emotion than happiness that comes from within — from a sense of purpose and meaning, including finding meaning in suffering — and from relationships with others. It therefore lasts longer than its counterpart. It’s also relatively independent from happiness, according to Atherton.  

Joy is internal and connected to living a more authentic life. This is because to have joy, you must do inner work, identifying your values and strengths and aligning your life with them.  

“I love that joy is bigger than me and that it requires me to make meaningful and deep connections with those I love,” Atherton said. 

Is joy an emotion?

Yes, joy is an emotion. However, it’s also a state of mind. Since it’s not based on external events, it can help you and your family find fulfillment and contentment, even in difficult times. 

Examples of joy

Examples of joy include feeling fulfilled and content when you: 

  • Engage in meaningful activities.  
  • Volunteer. 
  • Meditate. 

The Difference Between Joy and Happiness

As explained above, there’s a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is typically a more fleeting emotion, often sparked by a particular moment or event that brings a sense of excitement or exhilaration. Joy, on the other hand, is a more long-lasting state of being, characterized by contentment and satisfaction with life overall.  

It’s important for your family to keep this distinction in mind when pursuing greater well-being and fulfillment. By understanding the unique contributions of joy and happiness, you can put happiness into proper perspective and prioritize joy. This mindset will help you better navigate the ups and downs of life with greater resilience, which is especially helpful when dealing with stress. You’ll also have more appreciation for all life has to offer. 

The Psychology of Joy vs. Happiness

Knowing the difference between joy and happiness can help your family’s mental health, according to Atherton. That’s because while everyone truly wants joy, not a lot of people know how to obtain it. Instead, they chase happiness, which is fleeting. Those who focus on happiness and don’t experience it as much as they want could feel sad and even depressed. For example, smiling depression, which is essentially depression hidden behind a happy and content façade, could be an issue. 

By knowing the difference between joy and happiness and applying that knowledge, your family can focus on pursuing the long-lasting contentment and satisfaction that joy brings.   

Cultivating True Joy

When it comes to your child, it’s important they start cultivating joy at as young an age as possible so it can serve as a compass in life, according to Atherton. Doing activities that contribute to their joy will help make life worth living and provide them with purpose.  

Strategies for adolescents, teens, and young adults

To help young people cultivate joy in their lives, Atherton encourages them to focus on figuring out what they’re good at. Once they do, they can align the way they live their lives with their strengths, giving them a sense of purpose and meaning, which is key to joy.  

If you have an adolescent, teen, or young adult, they can also find purpose and meaning by exploring what their values are and living in alignment with them. Volunteering, doing acts of kindness for others, and keeping a gratitude journal can also be helpful. 

How parents can help

You can help your child, whatever their age, cultivate joy. Encourage them to do activities that are meaningful to them, as that will help them discover their strengths. When they’re engaging in an activity they enjoy, do the activity with them, or ask them to teach you how to do it.   

Another way to help your child cultivate joy and social wellness is by giving back as a family. Volunteer together and teach them how to be selfless through example. You can also encourage genuine connection through family meals by making time for conversation and actively listening to your child without judgment.  

These activities are great ways to contribute to the fulfillment and contentment that are associated with joy. 

How can mental health treatment foster true joy?

If your child understands the difference between joy vs. happiness but is having difficulty cultivating joy, consider seeking mental health treatment to see if there’s a reason behind that difficulty that therapy can address. Atherton explained that the meaningful connection between a therapist and client sets the stage for the therapist to help your child explore different areas about themselves, like their values, and show them how to live in alignment with those values. 

By distinguishing between joy vs. happiness, actively pursuing joy, and seeking treatment if needed, your family can find long-lasting contentment and fulfillment that will serve you well throughout life. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.