Why the secret to happiness might be joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Girl sitting out looking over the sea | Why the secret to happiness might be joy

Author’s Note: This post was originally published on May 14, 2018. It has been updated and reposted.

In April 2018, I spoke at TED in Vancouver. It was an extraordinary experience (and challenge!) that continues to connect me to viewers around the world.

There’s something interesting about writing a TED talk just after finishing a book. In a book you can take your time to explore and build up to an idea and 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.

Why the Secret to Happiness Might Be Joy

Over the years, this one point really seems to resonate:

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…

Defining Emotions

When I started studying joy, I quickly discovered that it was hard to find a clear, concrete definition of it. Even scientists — 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.

Happiness vs. Joy

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

Find Happiness by Focusing on Joy

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. 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. 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. This is when a small burst of emotion kicks 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.

How to find more joy every day

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

Need ideas on how to get started? Download my free guide full of 50 simple, low-cost tips for finding more joy everyday.

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

February 2nd, 2024


Lost your spark?

The Joy Jumpstart is a 7-day, self-guided program to help you break out of a rut and reconnect with what makes you feel truly alive.

    Discussion (5 Comments)

  1. Audrey on January 24, 2019

    Do you happen to know if there’s any research on joy perceived through other senses?
    I’m in the process of designing a garden and I want to make it a fully sensory experience focused on joy so smells and sounds will feature in my design and I was wondering if you knew of any work in those areas?

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on February 21, 2019

      Audrey, thank you for this great question! I have lots of research on this topic and will be pulling it together in an upcoming blog post. Please check back in March and I’ll share back then!

  2. serine on June 12, 2020

    I have found that spending time in joy has dramatically increased my self esteem. I no longer rely on outside influences and events to feel happy. My quality of life has improved immensely and my anxiety has reduced. I have rapid cycling bipolar with psychosis episodes and I have learned mindfulness and spend much time in a mindful state. I am brought into a state of euphoria but I am thinking it is the joy you speak of. Except with my intense moods it does turn to a euphoria and I can bawl with the intense pleasure of it all.

  3. Kristina on April 10, 2022

    I have noticed that looking at the photos of my children on my phone at the end of a tiring day brings me great joy. I usually only take photos of the joyous moments and so it seems adds lots of bursts of joy to the end of my day.

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on April 10, 2022

      Such a great point, Kristina!


Leave a Comment

What's killing your joy? Take this 3-minute quiz to find out.
Free Resource

Find more joy every day

Our free workbook has 5 simple strategies that will make life better right now.

You'll also receive periodic updates on new things from The Aesthetics of Joy. We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.