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The Difference Between Joy & Happiness

A corgi mug and flowers.
This image reflects a recent period of grave darkness for my family. But from within the darkness, I did not lose my joy.
When was the last time you were happy?

This question was posed to me a few weeks ago. I was so caught off guard that I nearly had a spontaneous combustion of tears. After being thrust into survival mode two years ago, I hadn't even trifled with my own happiness because frankly, I've had bigger fish to fry.

In a nutshell, the answer to the question was that I was last "happy" pre-Covid. My circumstances felt the freest, most lighthearted, fun, and safe that I had yet to experience in life. My children and I had moved in with my longtime boyfriend and we were, I thought, a family.

I did the things I loved most... took care of the man I loved, had plenty of bandwidth to give my children the attention that they needed, made homemade meals for our "family," worked out regularly, had time for self-care, and was able to write my first book– a labor of love that had been brewing inside of me for years. My man took care of us too. I spent two solid years in dumbfounded happiness. I simply couldn't imagine better circumstances.

Then Covid happened. The cracks and fissures in our relationship burst the whole edifice wide open. It takes two to tango and we disagreed on what fundamental actions were necessary to repair the rupture.

To say that the circumstances for my children and me changed is an understatement. For every degree of carefreeness I had before, I now acquired an infinitesimally greater degree of stress as a suddenly single mother (again), unemployed, and with no place to live. But I knew that would happen when I chose to do what was right for my children and leave. This was my second time at this rodeo.

My happiness? Well, it had been suffocating for the previous 18 months anyway, so the abrupt end was like the amputation of a rotten limb.

I have contemplated the distinction between happiness and joy for probably thirty years. This recent chapter in my life codified everything I know to be true about it.

Happiness comes and goes. It's freedom and levity. Things are great. You are validated by your job, relationship, children, accomplishments, or whatever props your identity up. Yeah, maybe a hiccup or two here or there, but nothing that can't be handled. In fact, those minor bumps in the road can trick you into believing that things are better than they really are because how could it get worse?

Happiness is the feeling when all seems right and manageable in your world. But it doesn't sustain us because all is not right or manageable in our world all of the time. Enter joy.

Joy is the participation in the ground of all being, to borrow from Paul Tillich. It is the existential flow that courses within us from the Source that provides optimism despite darkness and seemingly dead ends. It is the deep knowing that life carries on and our personal narratives are but threads in an infinite universal tapestry.

Joy allows us to acknowledge our paradoxical value of being Loved, being Love, and being insignificant all at the same time. Joy sees beauty through the ugly, hope when there isn't reason for it, and wonder at the story we don't know the ending to. Joy is peace with things as they are. Joy is being content with your transitory place in the universe and honoring the same in others.

Happiness is a feeling associated with circumstances. Joy is a state of being rooted in ultimate reality.

The difference between happiness and joy is like the difference between great sex and bending-of-the-universe cosmic sex. One comes and goes; the other is participation in an eternal state of being. One is attached to logistics and labels; the other is the result of discipline colliding with consciousness.

I mention discipline because you must have the inner fortitude to stay the course and not let your monkey mind derail your presence in Joy. Enough practice does make it easier. Or perhaps I should qualify, focused practice strengthens your conviction that Joy sees you through all seasons. Beauty is to be found even in the darkest of times. We don't need our circumstances to be ideal in order to believe the best, know our worth, and appreciate sublimity all around us.

The flowers in the image above were sent to me by an acquaintance who knew that I had almost lost one of my children. The fact that such kindness came from someone who isn't even personally close to me made the gesture all the more profound. I had been terribly isolated for an excruciatingly long time, fighting battles nearly everyone in my orbit knew nothing about, and her simple act of thoughtfulness was symbolic of the Joy that undergirds my strength to press forward.

I first heard the song Joy by Lucinda Williams back in the late nineties. I love her ragged diatribe about reclaiming her joy. There was a time in life when I did allow someone to take my joy. Or so I thought. I had confused happiness with Joy. It was my happiness that I gave away. Joy is the Source that keeps me devoted to life at its fullest; circumstances come or go as they may.

No one can take my Joy.


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