In our culture, we often privilege joy over happiness. We tend to see happiness as merely a temporary feeling that arises due to good fortune or other external circumstances, whereas joy is deeper, richer, and more immune to the vicissitudes of life. Of course this happiness is impermanent, but all feelings are impermanent – that is not its primary defect. The real problem is not with happiness but with desire: desire for pleasure, for comfort, for satisfaction. Seeking pleasure, comfort, luxury, power, status, and wealth ultimately do not lead to satisfaction; they lead to suffering.
We also are inclined to look down on happiness because of its humble origins. Happiness is mundane, bound up with domestic situations, with ordinary, everyday life. It is close to the ground, close to home, common, earthy, vulgar. At its core happiness is taking simple delight in the ordinary and commonplace activities and events that one is engaged in at that moment. There is no distance from the activity, from the reality of the moment. Instead, one is fully engaged, and the delight one feels comes specifically from being engaged in this simple way. Indeed, this sort of absorption in the mundane activities of life may be so entire that you are not even aware that you are happy; you might not even realize it at the time. We have all had the experience of someone interrupting our activities to alert us to the happiness that we had not yet noticed in ourselves. “You seem so happy!” they tell us. “Hmm, do I?” we respond, “I guess I am!” At that moment, we become aware of our happiness – which actually converts our state of mind to one of joy or delight. Joy is always conscious. There is no such thing as unconscious joy. Joy is an aspect of consciousness; it requires consciousness and awareness to come into being.
Whereas happiness is rooted in ordinary life, joy is more detached, elevated. Happiness is about immanence. Joy is about transcendence. Joy consists in reflecting on one’s experiences from some degree of distance. One reflects on the enjoyment one feels in one’s everyday activities and situations. Or one reflects on the dissatisfying aspect of those activities and situations but sees them within a broader context in which they are understood and appreciated. Joy involves distance, space. One is removed somewhat from the mundane. Happiness is simply enjoying doing the dishes. Joy is contemplating the act of doing the dishes as something meaningful and significant, perhaps as an expression of cultivating “the simple life” or “being a good husband.” One forms an idea about doing the dishes and then enjoys that idea. It is a conceptual experience.
Although we understand and appreciate the dangers – and undesirability – of running after happiness, we do not as easily see the possibility of similar pitfalls with joy. We have a much larger blind spot with joy. But running after joy is just as harmful as running after happiness. Indeed, it can be even more destructive. Joy is transcendent. To experience joy is in some measure to savor distance from the physical, from the mundane. There is thus an opportunity for escapism, as we seek to get away from our ordinary, everyday experiences to something more removed, sophisticated, and refined. This aspect also creates the opportunity for indulging in judgment, aversion, and condemnation. We can look down on others for enjoying simple bodily pleasures like sex, food, entertainment, sports, and so forth. We can start to think that our refined appreciation for experiences that give rise to the exquisite states of joy reflect our wiser, more intelligent appreciation of life. We sip at our chalices of joy, noting hints of cherry and undertones of sandalwood, in contrast to the common masses mindlessly gulping down cans of happiness. In this way, joy can become a cover for materialism and pride, a playground for ego.
So the truth is that joy is no better or more virtuous or valuable than happiness, and neither is more or less susceptible than the other to misapplication. Joy is not at odds with happiness. We don’t need to nurture aversion to happiness in order to increase our attachment to joy. We need both joy and happiness. We should cultivate both. And this is precisely what we are encouraged to do as we apply the teachings.
Happiness is bound up with mindfulness, with sacred presence, and with humility. Happiness is simpler than joy. It’s more ordinary than joy. It is more systematic, pragmatic, and predictable. We can research what conditions and activities tend to encourage happiness. We can learn what those are and then implement them. And they’re not surprises. Cultivate relationships and a feeling of connection with others. Be part of a community. Be engaged in positive work and physical activities that give you a feeling of flow, of fluidity and absorption. Perform acts of service for others. Eat nourishing food. Exercise. Spend time in nature. Carve out opportunities to rest. Live in a safe, quiet environment. Happiness is about practical, preventive medicine. It reflects ordinary day-to-day healthfulness and wholesomeness. Happiness is a sign of ordinary, everyday health. Ordinary daily happiness can be the result of an attitude or approach to life: one of openness, gratitude, acceptance, and contentment. Being happy is also necessary for us to be a refuge for others.
Joy is more like corrective medicine. To feel relief from sorrow brings joy. Thich Nhat Hanh analogizes joy (piti) to being handed a glass of cool water when you are thirsty, whereas happiness (sukkha) is actually drinking the water. Although the mere presence of the water does not yet change the sensations of pain – one’s thirst – it does relieve the suffering one feels because of those sensations. But the key point is that one starts with suffering, and then the joy is a means of relieving that suffering, of correcting a condition that could impair one’s health. We often experience joy precisely in the context of suffering, whether in the form of sadness, loneliness, or despair. Indeed, it is the bitterness of our suffering that makes our joy so sweet.
Happiness and joy work together. A joyful mindset, once established, naturally gravitates toward what is beautiful, wholesome, and nurturing. Joy is a sort of experience enhancer, like MSG for the mind. It makes positive experiences more positive and negative experiences less negative. Cultivating joy (and cheerfulness) becomes perpetuating. It builds momentum. When we are in a state of joy, we will tend to direct attention to what is pleasant and satisfying, to what will water positive seeds in us and in others. Our perception will tend to emphasize the positive aspects of the situation. Ordinary experiences, like breathing, become pleasurable. Mildly pleasant things become even more intensely pleasurable. The increase in pleasurable feelings and happiness then in turn tend to generate even greater states of joy. So there starts to be a positive feedback loop between the two, as happiness and joy further feed and reinforce each other.
Happiness and joy also balance each other. Because happiness is rooted in and made possible by pleasant experiences, it naturally tends toward attachment, which can be a cause of suffering. The natural movement of distance and space in joy can help disengage the momentum toward attachment, instead inclining us toward greater equanimity. Joy can bring some healthy detachment to prevent attachment to what is pleasant and pleasurable. Joy can also bring us some welcome detachment from what may otherwise foster aversion or start to bring us down. Joy creates space, some room to breathe. So cultivating happiness is cultivating the ground for even greater joy. And cultivating joy creates more space for happiness to flourish.
Unlike our ordinary concept of joy, in the practice of dharma we find that joy (piti) arises from absorption, not from distance. In that way, joy retains the aspect of happiness in its rootedness to ordinary moment-by-moment experience. Here joy is similar to the concept of flow, a state of engaged activity in which one’s energy is so focused on the activity that no energy is directed toward perpetuation of a self. Similarly, unlike our ordinary understanding of happiness as good fortune, true happiness (sukkha) is not dependent on external conditions but instead – like our conventional notion of joy – arises from within us. The Buddha likened sukkha to an underground spring. Sukkha is a wellspring of internal joy. This is joy as an inexhaustible resource within. This is joy arising from letting go, from realizing aimlessness, the recognition that there is nothing special to be, nothing special to do. But the primary focus of sukkha’s expression lies within the sphere of happiness — in the moment-by-moment experience of everyday life, of ordinary work, relationships, activities, and events. So we must revive the concept of happiness. We must allow ourselves to be happy, to see that being happy is not a hindrance to spirituality but essential to the spiritual life. It is a spiritual practice and a spiritual discipline that we should cultivate.
The best approach, therefore, is to combine happiness with joy in all aspects of our life, not to prefer one over the other. This can be difficult for us at the beginning because of our distrust of happiness. We need to open to happiness. We need to be fully engaged with the moment-by-moment experience in mindfulness – complete openness to the present moment and gratitude for the work that one has been given to do manifest as happiness, as cheerfulness. The happiness that one feels in this constant wholesome activity brings energy and joy. This joy further encourages us to continue in even greater confidence and with even more diligence. We find that the more effort we expend, the more joy we experience. This joy arises out of contentment and gratitude, out of the sure knowledge that we are on the right path and have everything we need to keep going. True joy lies in accepting this present moment (and all the prior moments that led to this one) just as it is, and then immediately letting it go. We are engaged completely in the work we have been given to do. Yet we let go completely of seeking any benefit in return for the work we do, we let go of any desire for reward, recognition, or appreciation. We find that the reward is the work itself, which is an ever-increasing engine for creating great joy. For joy to become a factor of awakening, we must be content and develop a positive attitude, whatever life presents to us.