Happiness and joy

I wrote an earlier post on the relationship between happiness and virtue and at the risk of repeating myself I am going to have another go. In both Greek and Christian tradition there is also a distinction made between happiness and joy. As I mentioned in the earlier post, happiness is not understood to be an event or an emotion but relates to a life well lived – to the flourishing of the whole of a life.

One way to think about this is to go through a little thought experiment (I read about this somewhere but cannot remember the source – my apologies). Imagine yourself walking past a drug addict in the street who has recently had a shot of heroin. He has a smile on his face and is clearly “happy”, in the euphoric sense to which most of us think about that term. Yet with good reason, we are able to judge that this person is not living a happy life. They are not flourishing and unless things change are not likely to have a life of which it can be said, “there goes a happy man.”

Joy is also different to euphoria. They are both emotional and they are both episodic – they come and go with the circumstances of life. Joy, however, is understood as the celebration of good and beautiful experiences of life while euphoria is simply an emotion that may go with joy but that may also be associated with the injection of heroin. We may also experience euphoria in response to evil, but this is not the experience of joy but, rather, an expression of our brokenness – of the evil that is within us. Some people “enjoy” torturing animals, but this seemingly pleasant emotion is something other than joy – at least as that term has been traditionally understood.

So, in comparison to happiness, joy is much more obviously connected to events and the emotions associated with those events. We contrast joy with grief. We can attend a funeral and say of a widow, “she lived a happy life with her husband”, and we can recognise that her grief does not destroy that happiness, even if it colours it. Joys and griefs are the experience of every life. The person who flourishes differs from the person who does not, largely in the meaning that they are able to make of their life through their experiences of joy and grief. This meaning enables them to transcend their grief. This leaves writers like Thomas Aquinas to assert that, ultimately, happiness does not relate to the circumstances of life but, rather, to the manner in which we deal respond to those circumstances.

If I’m reading him correctly, St Paul takes all of this a little further. He talks about joy as a fruit of the spirit. Now it may be that he is using the term joy as others are using happiness, as something that supersedes our circumstances. But maybe he is also suggesting that we can know something of the emotion of joy even in the midst of grief by the experience of the spirit? (Help me out here Bible scholars!)

Now, I would like to believe St Paul and Aquinas are right – I know that I should believe that they are! But, as I said previously, I do wonder whether all of this is wishful thinking. In reality there seems to be a fair bit of luck connected to happiness, even if this is understood in terms of the story of a flourishing life. It seems to me that while the person with adequate money and good health may or may not be happy, they have a better chance of it than does the person without either. Perhaps, then, all we can do is hope that happiness supersedes circumstances. And for that, I guess, I can pray with St Paul for the gift of the spirit – the deposit of the future – the gift that promises that flourishing is possible.

Anyway, I think I’m going to do one more post on happiness (if I’m boring you just don’t read it!). It will be a critique of Christian tradition, whose wowserism has undermined much of the insight in their understanding of happiness. But that for another time.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • craig bennett
    September 22, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Hi Shane. I think of joy as being our source of strength to keep on going when in the natural we have nothing within us to continue on.

    I know in the midst of my own despair I had no joy and strength and asked the lord to grant me joy once again.

  • Ellen Hendrix
    September 24, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I think happiness and living the good life come out of the same place. In my life I think they are byproducts of what I know of the unchanging nature of God.
    I think a life well lived is lived out of what remains constant in my life – I don’t often see what is coming, or have deep insights in to what God might be up to, but his nature, his character are the same every day. Out of that knowledge I can live well. Even in the midst of the s… storms, he has remained the same, true to his character. My reactions to the storms that have come into my life probably have crossed the spectrum of human emotions. But he has been the same towards me; I am convinced I am his that my position in him doesn’t change with my circumstances. From this place I have experienced joy.
    Happy – to me comes with knowing that God can, has and will bring change to my life. It is evident to me [over the past 30+ years] that he is deeply and joyfully committed to me – Jesus [the best person to ever live] is committed to us that makes me happy.
    You mentioned Thomas Aquinas’ assertion that ultimately, happiness does not relate to the circumstances of life but, rather, to the manner in which we deal/respond to those circumstances. I think happiness doesn’t hinge on the circumstances of my life or those that I love. But how can I trust God in situations that are deeply painful, that knock me off my moorings or circumstances that are unsettling because I can’t figure out the trajectory of what is going on? If I respond from what is constant in my life, his nature – I know that he does not change, he is always loving, joyful, peaceful, merciful, patient, kind, good, and gentle from this position I can address the challenges and distresses that come to me. Though God asks me to express the fruit of the Spirit in my life, I do it from as Brother Lawrence says, the practicing of his presence then my actions/reactions come out of something bigger than me and my many inadequacies, they come out of his nature and the new one I try to live from, then I can live what Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas calls a good life. God help me, I’ve got a long way to go.

  • Craig Benno
    September 25, 2011 at 7:58 am

    I’d like to expand more on my comment. I think that we need to start from the position that the “Fruit of the Spirit” is God’s character / nature within himself, for and towards all of creation. Within this framework, Joy should be a natural response of Christians because its a sign of God being for us and its a result of God working through, over and within us (both as individuals and community.) and our awareness of it.

    We tend to lose a sense of Joy when it appears that God is distant or no longer for or with us and the circumstances of life seem to prove that is a ‘fact’. I think that Joy is also linked to contentment…The Apostle Paul was able to say from within jail that he knows what its like to have plenty (freedom, money, friends etc) and knows what its like to have little – yet despite what happens he is able to be content in all circumstances because he is able to do (get through every circumstance of life…) all things through Christ who strengthens him.

    I don’t think it means we have to be happy or euphoric about our circumstances or the situations we find ourselves in…rather from the account of Paul and Silas singing songs of praise in jail with much gusto we can be happy within the circumstances of life.

    • Samuel Ng
      October 5, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      Agree. =)

  • Rowena Reynolds
    September 26, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    I am going to be deep and meaningful and simply tell you that having you and Elly in my life has brought me both joy and happiness. Although I could bombard you with reams of information regarding subjective well-being and positive psychology I actually think the first sentence is most adequate!

    • Shane Clifton
      September 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      you are definitely right Rowena, we are privileged to have yourself and David as amazing friends. Everything else is incidental.

  • Jean Hartley
    February 4, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Hi Shane-
    I’ve read some of your posts and appreciate you forthrightness. I am a post polio syndrome (1933) person who has been called ” crippled” and handicapped”. I’m not handicapped: earned a masters degree, traveled to 30 countries as a missionary (mostly alone), had twin boys, manage my website, have had 8 articles published about disability (ok for disability” as I not able to do some things). live alone, drive an accessible red VW Bug ,blah, blah.
    Tonight I am having a book signing at our island’s only book store (Big Island of Hawaii) for my book “Go Beyond: Coping with Disability”, Self published
    thru Lulu Press. Don’t buy the book as you already know how to “cope”, but maybe some of your friends may find it helpful. My take-away is stop bitching, get out there, take chances, and serve others
    when sadness clouds your day. I want to awaken the audience to the realities of not walking (not a big deal as I fall less on my electric scooter), be nice to care-givers (not many out there) and avoid the false words “you are so brave” and other cliches. I will watch my mouth but will spare no one. Wish me luck.
    Jean Hartley, Kailua Kona, Hawaii

    • Shane Clifton
      February 4, 2015 at 9:37 am

      So nice to hear from you, Jean. I’ve had a quick look through your website, and it looks brilliant. Good luck!


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