I read a book. I eat a good meal. I travel with my family. I dig into a challenging task at work. I take a walk in nature. Which of these things bring me happiness? Which create joy? 

The relationship between these two emotions is a complicated one. There are experiences that bring me happiness, but don’t really create joy, such as watching a mindless TV program. And there are experiences that create joy within me over time but may not always feel happy in the moment, like playing make-believe with my child for hours (and hours) on a Saturday. 

What is the difference between these emotions? To me, happiness is a feeling of warmth, of energy, of excitement in one’s body. It happens in the present, in the moment. Joy is happiness extended over time, with an awareness of the past and the future. Joy contains within it an awareness of endings, that what creates joy will come to an end. Joy pairs with and exists in relationship with grief. 

Perhaps the difference between the two is in the mindset, an awareness of time. We all need the in-the-moment feeling of happiness, the warmth and the energy and the momentary disappearance of endings. But if we spend all our time striving for that in-the-moment feeling, we will ultimately find little fulfillment at all. The sad irony is that striving for happiness will leave us with neither happiness nor joy in the end. That is why we must also cultivate an awareness of joy across time. This awareness can extend and change our present feelings of happiness — happiness may go away and it may come back, and joy and grief can go on. 

Our culture advocates for the momentary pleasure, the quick hit of happiness. There is nothing wrong with happiness; as I said before, we need it. But that cannot be all we have. Because everything around us pushes us toward happiness at the expense of other experiences, we must imbue our lives with those people and activities that bring us joy. Sometimes we will find immediate happiness in those things; sometimes we will not. But we should be cultivating those things which bring us joy.

Some people might argue that this is a self-centered view. What about doing things that help others? But I would argue that if we are living in the fullness of our humanity, connecting with others is the very thing that brings us joy. My connection between myself and another person, between myself and another creature, between myself and our planetary home… these are the very nature of joy. 

I’m looking for joy in little things…the sound of wind rushing through the trees while I’m in my morning run. The feeling of little water drops tapping my back in the shower. These things bring me happiness and joy. 

I’m looking for joy in big things. Time spent with my child. Accomplishing transformational work. Expressing my emotions fully. These things sometimes bring me happiness, and they always bring me joy. 

This is the awareness I am turning towards in my life…opening myself to happiness, and cultivating the joy that comes from connecting with others. Connecting with others across the barriers of race, gender, class, and sexuality, and connecting with our planet to live in true harmony with its systems — that joy transforms my life. And if enough of us cultivate that joy, it could transform our world.

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