Happiness and Joy: How are they different and which do you want?

Contributor: Kaia Roman
Photographer: Taylor Balding
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Have you ever really thought about the difference between happiness and joy? We often use the two terms interchangeably, but they are actually quite different.

The most joyful people I’ve ever met were on the tiny island of Bali. Their smiles are infectious. They adorn everything with flowers, including their motorbikes. They are kind and generous—offering to give everything—while what they have to give is often very little. Their lives are not easy. Most have no running water in their homes and cook over an open flame. They may not be happy with every aspect of their lives, but to me, the Balinese embody joy.

So what is the difference between happiness and joy? It turns out, it’s all in our heads. Scientists have found that happiness is a cognitive experience. That means we experience happiness in our conscious minds, which is located in the neocortex of the brain. Neo means new, and it’s called the neocortex because it’s the most recent part of the human brain to evolve. This is where planning, decision-making, and analytical thought take place.


In contrast, joy is a subconscious experience. It’s an emotion that doesn’t require cognitive thought and appears to originate in the brain’s limbic system. This is the oldest part of the brain where long-term memory is stored and emotions and behavior are controlled. Whereas happiness is related to drive-reduction—like hunger or thirst—thus producing a temporary feeling of satisfaction, joy is longer-lasting and less dependent on outside factors.

Both happiness and joy feel good, but happiness comes and goes more easily. Happiness is a state of mind based on circumstances; joy is a feeling that’s independent from circumstance. You’re unlikely to be happy continuously, but it is possible to feel joy no matter what’s happening in your life. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s possible.

This distinction between happiness and joy—and its implications—have been a driving force in my life for the past year. I’ve realized that I’ll always have ups and downs, twists and turns, and I’m not going to be happy all of the time, or even most of the time. But I can always choose joy. I can find an optimistic outlook, I can search for something to smile about, and I can focus on my blessings rather than my hardships. I am striving to be more like the Balinese.

Perhaps it’s the strong Hindu culture in Bali that creates their ever-present joy. Joy is often associated with spiritual enlightenment or a feeling of being connected to a higher power. Craig Lambert, Ph.D., wrote in Harvard Magazine, “The mystics have linked joy to connection with a power greater than themselves.”

Lambert also clarified that happiness activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system—which is responsible for the flight or fight response—whereas joy stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling the body’s rest and digest functions. According to Lambert, “Happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live.”

And I agree: I don’t just want to visit happiness, I want to live in joy.