“Happiness depends on what happens; joy does not” (Oswald Chambers).
WITH REGARD TO JOY, THE FIRST THING WE NEED TO KNOW IS THIS: JOY IS NOT THE SAME THING AS HAPPINESS. As its spelling indicates, “happiness” has to do with “happenings.” It is what we feel when what is happening is pleasant. And since what is happening is often beyond our control, happiness is an “iffy” thing. Indeed, the Middle English root from which we get both “happen” and “happy” is hap (“luck, fortune, chance”). Sometimes our circumstances may “happen” to be pleasant, but at other times they may not.
Joy, on the other hand, results from the way we think. As Tim Hansel has put it, “Happiness is a feeling. Joy is an attitude.” It’s the contentment that comes from trusting that which is trustworthy — and the excitement that comes from doing deeds that are based on that trust. Unlike happiness, which may or may not come our way when we want it to, joy is a quality that can always be ours, and it is a far greater thing to aspire to. “The word ‘joy’ is too great and grand to be confused with the superficial things we call happiness” (Kirby Page).
To a large extent, joy is a by-product of having aligned ourselves with the true-north principles of right and wrong (honesty, courage, justice, etc.). If our conscience knows that we’re guilty of wrongdoing, there can be no true joy for us, even if the present moment may be making us happy. Thomas à Kempis was correct: “No man can safely rejoice unless he possesses the testimony of a good conscience.”
So joy (or at least being open to joy) is a choice we can make for ourselves. But more than that, it’s a gift we can give to others. When we are joyless, we depress and discourage those who have to have dealings with us — on the other hand, we honor and benefit them when we present our “self” to them as a joyful self.
Joy is a wonderfully democratic thing. It is available to all, not just the privileged few. And not only is it available to all, but the experience of it is the same for everybody. When one person tastes true joy, the taste of it is no less exquisite than it is for any other person, no matter how different the individuals may be in other respects. In the very highest sense, then, joy is an “equal opportunity” virtue.
“Bliss is the same in subject or in king” (Alexander Pope).