The Difference Between Joy and Happiness

man wrapping arm on woman facing each other

Joy is a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. 

Happiness is an emotional state characterized by feelings of joy. 

Reading those definitions, it’s easy to see why people routinely confuse the two. But make no mistake: they are not the same.  

The honeymoon is over!

I learned this lesson the hard way when I got married. Just after the honeymoon ended, it seemed to me that  “fun” and “happiness” took a permanent sabbatical! 

One particular evening in those early days of marriage stands out. I had come home from work early and prepared a nice meal to surprise my husband. I was very much looking forward to seeing him— but it was immediately clear that he didn’t share my excitement. 

As we sat down to eat, I slipped into “chatty Cathy” mode and fired off a stack of questions about his day. 

After several one-word answers, he asked, “Is this an interrogation?” 

So much for my special dinner plans. My excitement to see my husband fizzled out.

A little later, I found his dirty clothes in the bathroom and bedroom, which further took the wind out of my fun-and-happiness sails. 

I didn’t sign up for this, I told myself. Where had the romance, the wonder, the happiness gone?

The difference between joy and happiness

Well, as can happen, the loss that I felt turned into grief then resentment— which led us further apart. 

In that season, God reminded me of a truth I had learned years earlier:

When I was 18, I went on a year-long mission’s trip and was deeply unhappy in the first few weeks. I had left my friends, family, and material possessions behind. My calling had once felt so clear— now I was unsure.

A sweet friend patiently taught me the difference between happiness and joy: Happiness is based on outward circumstances— and is therefore always temporary. So are feelings of unhappiness.

Joy, however, isn’t temporary. Joy doesn’t leave us as situations or circumstances change, either positively or negatively. It’s not based on earthly things— it’s a gift from God that we can have and share every day of our lives.

What does joy have to do with marriage?

The Holy Spirit graciously taught me to apply those same truths in those early, disillusioned days of marriage.

I was certainly allowed to feel hurt by the rudeness my husband showed me at dinner. I was allowed to be disappointed. It was okay not to feel happy all the time. 

Since happiness is based on outward circumstances, I also remembered that my anger, hurt, disappointment and grief would also be temporary. 

I could literally feel the relief wash over me.

I was often reminded to lean into joy— free, unshakeable, already mine in Christ!— when my circumstances weren’t “happy.” These reminders usually popped up when, as a married couple, we hit a new or unexpected roadblock— usually during one of our constantly changing “seasons.”

Season 1:

The “not so honeymoon” season. 

Season 2:

The “pregnant and new babies” season— when every single waking moment felt stressful, I felt like I’d never be thin again, and I missed my “boyfriend” who was also perpetually busy with kids and work. 

Season 3:

The “no time for us” season— when everything felt like it was conspiring to drown me in work, mortgage, kids. A never-ending sense of busyness— I felt like I lost my husband and myself in this season.

Season 4:

The “I constantly feel sick” season. We were treading water as a couple, not really communicating, and certainly not resolving anything. We both tried to bury our emotions, not realizing that buried emotions are not dead emotions. 

Consequently, this season was filled with distance and solitude, which allowed infidelity to creep in and wreak havoc. It nearly destroyed us. 

This season was where I really had to work hard remembering that lesson from so long ago about the difference between joy and happiness. Which finally led us to the fifth season.

Season 5:

The “healing” season. Thank God for his perfect timing and for his Word. 

Nehemiah 8:10 tells us, “The joy of the LORD is our strength.” That’s good! 

But Hebrews 12:1-2 was our saving grace— this verse was a life-line as we clung to future hope for joy:

“… let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him  endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Jesus endured suffering and the cross because of the joy that was set before Him. In our season of painful healing, we clung to him, enduring the pain for the joy promised us.

Asking the right question

Joy is a byproduct of being in Christ. It’s what you see in the future to help you bear today’s sacrifice of short-term unhappiness and grief. Joy is lasting because it is based on an eternal reality, not a temporary, external circumstance. 

I learned that no matter what was going on, no matter how I was “feeling,” God’s joy would always be my strength. The lesson I bring with me here is this: If we focus on temporary, fleeting happiness, disappointment will inevitably set in, leading to resentment. You’ll find yourself asking the question that my husband and I asked ourselves: “Was this marriage a mistake?” 

Every marriage has its rough patches. It’s not for the weak or faint of heart. If you focus on temporary happiness, you won’t be happy with anyone. But if you look to Jesus for the joy that he freely and endlessly supplies— you’ll find the strength needed to endure hard seasons. 

During these times, the question isn’t, “Should I leave my spouse so I can be happy?” 

The right question is: “Can I learn to find joy in this (unhappy) season?” 

A practical exercise to help you find joy in hard seasons

Is your marriage in a difficult season? If you’re up for it, try this one thing for the next thirty days: Take two to three minutes every day to bless your spouse. 

This is different from your common prayer for your spouse— that they would be safe and have a good workday, etc. 

I’m talking about a very specific blessing. Speak out the qualities and gifts you see in and appreciate about them. Create an atmosphere of blessing and gratefulness in your home and heart for your spouse. Renew your mind toward the man or woman God has gifted you with— and yes, your spouse is a gift! 

As you do, watch God fill your marriage with joy unspeakable… even in times of unhappiness.

Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?

Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?

You Might Also Like