A New Definition of Joy

Many of us can get confused and think that joy is the same as happiness. This is completely understandable, as the two terms are often used synonymously. Yet, from a relational perspective, these are very different concepts. Happiness is a fleeting emotion and depends upon people, events, or situations to help us feel good as long as the good circumstances last.  Joy, on the other hand, is a sense of belonging, of being included by others into their lives, whether those moments are celebrations or expressions of grief (4).  Happiness may be thought of as the icing on the cake which gives us the sugar high.  Joy would be the whole meal – which may include a yummy dessert – that stays with us, nourishes us, and gives a sense of feeling full and satisfied.  


Joy grows around us the more we share it with others (3, 4). Like a smile from a baby, a hug from a friend, or a story of a great moment in our lives, when we share our precious stories, others enter into the moment with us, and this gives them the chance to feel our joy. This is how joy grows.  You have a joy moment, and your friend or family member has some of your same experience as you recount your story.  Here’s how it works in a simplistic formula: your good memory + your friend’s experience (as he or she enters into your story) = multiple people feeling joy together (as all think about the great memory).   


The dilemma

You might be asking: how can we experience joy when we feel grief, shame, fear, or anger? Great question. We can experience a sense of joy even when we feel intense negative emotions such as grief, sadness, fear, or anger. Remember that joy is not about having feelings of happiness, because we don’t feel happy about having difficulties; we feel awful, wanting to hide or fight back to relieve the pain.  


What helps us experience joy in these hard moments is the sense that someone is there for us. We may reach out to a friend, spouse, or someone we love during these times, and we sense they are walking through this tough time with us. We may be too overwhelmed to reach out, but somehow we know our friend is there for us.  Even when someone we care about can’t be with us, or they don’t know how to be there when we need them, we can experience a sense of joy in understanding that God is near. He cares about what we are going through (2). 


Tools for building joy

Let me lay out some tools that I often show my clients on how to build joy. First, using Check-In Words with our partners, families, and friends can build joy between people (3). Second, our Relational Circuits need to be turned on in order to make joy increase, and we can identify if our circuits are turned off. Often, we don’t experience joy because we’ve been conditioned to think that complaining and worrying are expected from adults. We do like to gripe about things that are irritating, but a steady diet of this doesn’t make things any better. We can lose the chance to build joy in ourselves or others because we focus on complaining instead of connecting.


Are you starting to get a sense of what joy is and how it is different than happiness?  Your understanding will grow when you take time to experience this type of joy for yourself.  The concept of joy is not easily learned from a book or article.  I can only point you to steps you can take or groups that practice joy on a regular basis. I hope you are curious enough to try it for yourself! 


Next steps to take

Below, I’ve outlined some next steps for you. As I mentioned, these are only the beginning to learn how to differentiate between happiness and joy. You might think this process is elementary, even childish. That may be exactly what’s keeping you from joy! Give these steps an authentic try, and see how it changes your outlook.


  1. Think about a very special time in your life and how you felt about it. Select a memory that was positive and doesn’t remind you of pain. Some simple, uncomplicated examples could be your favorite meal at a restaurant, visiting a beautiful park or museum, taking a photo that you love, the smiling face of a child, or the smell of roses. 


  1. Think about that memory for several minutes with no distractions. What do you see in your memory? Did you notice smells?  What sounds did you hear? Who was with you in this memory? 


  1. After thinking about this memory for a few minutes, did you notice anything? Do you feel more relaxed, or energized, or hopeful? You may have experienced some joy.  If you are feeling stuck at this point, try to find a picture or something in nature that you enjoy and spend a few minutes soaking that in.  Notice how your body reacts to this and whether you are able to slow down and appreciate what you are seeing.


  1. If you gained a sense of enjoyment from this memory, take a few minutes to tell someone else about your memory and watch their facial expressions. Did they start to smile, or relax? Hopefully, they really listened to you as you shared your story. You have just increased the joy in the world by sharing joy in this way!


In summary

As we grow in our understanding and experience of true joy, we are changing our brain and its neural pathways, and increasing our emotional capacity to handle pain, stress, and suffering (4).  Joy is foundational for building strong and healthy relationships with ourselves and others.  It’s a wonderful way to start living our best life. 




  1. Brown, A., & Coursey, C. (2019). Relational skills in the Bible: A Bible study focused on relationships. Carmel, IN: Deeper Walk International.
  2. Friesen, J. G., Wilder, E. J., Bierling, A. M., Koepcke, R., & Poole, M. (2013). Living from the heart Jesus gave you. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
  3. Warner, M., & Coursey, C. (2019). The 4 habits of joy-filled marriages: how 15 minutes a day will help you stay in love. Chicago: Northfield Publishing.

4. Wilder, E. J., Khouri, E. M., Coursey, C. M., & Sutton, S. D. (2014). Joy starts here: The transformation zone. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.



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