Why the secret to happiness might be joy

Girl sitting out looking over the sea

A few weeks ago I spoke at TED 2018 in Vancouver. It was an extraordinary experience (and challenge!) and I can’t wait to share it with you all when the video posts. And it turns out that will be in just one week! Mark your calendars for next Monday, May 21st, to check it out!

The interesting thing about writing a TED talk, just after finishing a book, is that whereas in a book you can take your time to explore and build up to an idea, in a TED talk you have just 12 minutes – 12 minutes!! – to get your ideas out. So it’s a real forcing mechanism for articulating your most important and essential ideas.

And one point that really seemed to resonate with people is this:

Joy is different than happiness. Happiness is something that measures how good we feel over time. But joy is about feeling good right now, in the moment.

This simple distinction has big implications. Our culture is obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, but in the process, we kind of overlook joy. We pursue the things we think will make us happy, but in the process we often find ourselves too busy or exhausted to experience or appreciate joy. Yet joy is a lot more immediate and accessible than happiness. And ironically, it may actually be one of the most powerful routes to happiness. So rather than chasing after happiness, maybe what we should be doing is focusing on joy instead…

“Are you happy?”

When I first started studying joy, I quickly discovered that it was hard to find a clear, concrete definition of it. Even scientists, who are known for their precision, sometimes use the terms joy, happiness, and positivity in overlapping or interchangeable ways. Part of the reason for this is that the study of emotions is an emerging science. As scientists begin working in a new area, they have to develop their own terminology, and it’s only natural that different researchers sometimes carve up the same space into different linguistic sections. Later, as a field becomes more established, a consensus begins to emerge around certain ideas (or factions form that continue to debate things out over time). So it went with emotions.

But over time scientists generally have come agree that happiness (or subjective wellbeing, SWB for short) is a state of being influenced by a range of different factors, measured over a period of time. For example, if I ask you, “Are you happy?” you might start thinking about how fulfilled you are in your career, your health, the state of your relationships with family and friends, your significant other or desire to find one. Sometimes it’s even a bit difficult to tell if you’re happy. Maybe you’ve experienced this. Most of your life is firing on all cylinders, but you’re dealing with a difficult situation at work and so while you feel like you should be happy, you’re not sure you are. Happiness is complex, and sometimes, the more we think about it, the less certain we become.

But if I ask you, “Do you feel joyful?” it’s a much simpler question. Because joy is an emotion measured in the moment, it’s not something we have to think about. We know what joy feels like, and we can usually say with pretty good accuracy whether or not we’re feeling it in a given moment.

Joy is easier to find than happiness

Similarly, if I were to ask you, “What would make you happy?” it can really open up a can of worms. The answer might be anything from earning a promotion to getting a degree to getting married to moving closer to (or further away from!) your family. The problem is that many of these thing aren’t in our control. And as Dan Gilbert pointed out in Stumbling on Happiness, these things may or may not actually make you happy, because happiness is more than just getting what we want. Marriage, on average, tends to make people happier. So does fulfilling work, and so does money, but only up to a certain point, after which it has no effect whatsoever. So happiness is complicated — we can’t predict or control it, and we don’t even always recognize it even when we have it.

But if I asked you, “What would bring you joy?” I’ll bet you could name at least a handful of things that might do the trick. A walk in the sunshine. Playing with a puppy. Lunch or a phone call with a good friend. A bunch of flowers. A colorful piece of art. A visit to a vibrant café in a different part of town. Listening to an upbeat song (and dancing for a few minutes). A favorite food. A great haircut.

Because joy lives in moments, it’s a lot simpler and easier to find than happiness.

Why the secret to happiness might be focusing on joy instead

But wait a minute — joy is nice, but didn’t I just say that it only lasts a moment? Sure, you might feel good while listening to music, but if you then have to listen to your boss barking orders, is that really going to do anything? What’s the value of a walk in the sunshine if all your problems will be waiting right here for you when I get back?

It’s a valid point. Joy isn’t happiness, and it isn’t a panacea for everything that bothers us in life. But what’s interesting is that research has found that these little moments of joy often have a halo effect, where their impact reaches beyond the moment of joy itself. In several important ways, those little moments of joy add up to more than the sum of their parts. And over time, their cumulative effects can lead to greater happiness. Here are a few specific reasons why:

1. Joy brings us into the present

Thinking about happiness often takes us out of the moment. We think about past experiences, how much progress we’re making toward our goals, and our likelihood of future happiness or success. Joy, on the other hand, absorbs us in the present moment. It engages our senses, letting us tune out our worries about what might be wrong with our lives for a little while. Some research has shown that people tend to be happiest when their minds are focused on what’s happening in the present, and joy helps us do just this.

2. Joy broadens our minds

Research shows that experiences of positive emotions like joy lead us to take a broader, more open-minded view of the world. (See also.)* We’re more flexible in our thinking and more exploratory in our behavior. We’re less likely to “sweat the small stuff” that could eat up our attention, and more likely to be receptive to novel ideas and opportunities that could take our lives in an exciting new direction.

3. Joy attracts others

One of the most significant — if not the most significant factor influencing happiness — is the quality of our relationships with others. And on this point, the research is clear. Emotions are highly contagious, and perhaps because we unconsciously know this, we are attracted to people who express positivity. Not saccharine, faux enthusiasm of course, but real, genuine joy.

Joy even makes people appear more physically attractive! In studies, people rate smiling faces of average attractiveness as more appealing than non-smiling faces of above-average looks.

4. Joy improves our health

Studies have shown a number of correlations between feeling genuine joy on a daily basis and our physical wellbeing. For example, people reporting regular positivity have been shown to have lower cortisol, inflammation, and blood pressure. Over time, some researchers believe that these effects may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and even help us live longer.

5. Joy begets more joy

Research shows that when we feel a little burst of joy (such as that we might feel if someone gave us a small gift of candy), we are more attentive to positive stimuli in our surroundings. We literally see more joy in the world around us when we’re in a positive mood. It’s almost as if the feeling of joy creates a kind of rose-colored filter for the world, prompting us to widen our peripheral vision so that we can find more bursts of joy to keep the feeling going.

This in turn can lead to what researchers call upward spirals, where a small burst of emotion can kick off a larger sequence of events that leads to greater wellbeing. If joy makes us more exploratory, healthier, and more attractive to others, this in turn might lead us to discover new opportunities and have more favorable (and spontaneous) interactions. These in turn bring more joy, and a virtuous circle ensues. The world seems friendlier, more benevolent. More abundant, and less full of obstacles. Interestingly, research shows that people who experience more joy (and other positive emotions) are more emotionally resilient — they are less likely to be negatively affected by the physical effects of stress and are more likely to bounce back quickly from a crisis.

So while joy might seem small, it can be a spark that starts a much bigger chain reaction toward a happier life. And the good news is, unlike a lot of things that experts tell us will make us happier, finding joy isn’t work. It’s fun!

Have you found that joy can lead to happiness? Please share your experiences!

*Note: Some of the Losada research supporting the broaden and build theory, in particular the piece about the 3:1 positivity ratio, has been withdrawn. Nevertheless, there remains a strong body of research in support of the theory as a whole.

Image: Tai Jyun Chang via Unsplash

Hey, Guess What?

The Aesthetics of Joy is now a book! Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness is now available for preorder.

Learn more

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