Is There a Difference Between Happiness and Joy?

An ungrounded, dangerous separation of joy from happiness has infiltrated the Christian community. The following is typical of the artificial distinctions made by modern Christians:

Joy is something entirely different from happiness. Joy, in the Biblical context, is not an emotion. . . . There is a big difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is an emotion and temporary; joy is an attitude of the heart.[i]

Judging from such articles (and there are hundreds more out there), you’d think the distinction between joy and happiness is biblical. It’s not.

John Piper writes, “If you have nice little categories for ‘joy is what Christians have’ and ‘happiness is what the world has,’ you can scrap those when you go to the Bible, because the Bible is indiscriminate in its uses of the language of happiness and joy and contentment and satisfaction.”[ii]

Here’s a sampling of the more than one hundred Bible verses in various translations that use joy and happiness together:

  • For the Jews it was a time of happiness and joy, gladness and honor. (Esther 8:16, NIV)
  • I will turn their mourning into joy. . . and bring happiness out of grief. (Jeremiah 31:13, HCSB)
  • Give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:25, NLT)

The relationship between joy and happiness in these passages refutes two common claims: (1) that the Bible doesn’t talk about happiness, and (2) that joy and happiness have contrasting meanings. In fact, the Bible overflows with accounts of God’s people being happy in him.

Depicting joy in contrast with happiness has obscured the true meaning of both words. Joyful people are typically glad and cheerful—they smile and laugh a lot. To put it plainly, they’re happy!

Opposition to the word happiness is a recent development in the church.

There’s a long rich, history of equating joy with happiness in Christ. For example, Jonathan Edwards cited John 15:11 (“that [Jesus’] joy might remain in you,” KJV) to prove this point: “The happiness Christ gives to his people, is a participation of his own happiness.”

Charles Spurgeon said, “May you so come, and then may your Christian life be fraught with happiness, and overflowing with joy.”[iii] Spurgeon’s views of happiness and joy, evident in hundreds of his sermons, are completely contrary to the artificial wall the contemporary church has erected between the two.

In stark contrast to believers prior to the twentieth century, many modern Christians have portrayed happiness as, at best, inferior to joy and, at worst, evil. Oswald Chambers (1874–1917), whom I greatly respect, is one of the earliest Bible teachers to have spoken against happiness. Chambers wrote, “Happiness is no standard for men and women because happiness depends on my being determinedly ignorant of God and His demands.”[iv]

After extensive research, I’m convinced that no biblical or historical basis exists to define happiness as inherently sinful. Unfortunately, because Bible teachers such as Chambers saw people trying to find happiness in sin, they concluded that pursuing happiness was sinful.

Chambers, a truly great Bible teacher and Christ-follower, claimed that “there is no mention in the Bible of happiness for a Christian.” Likewise, it’s common to hear people make claims like this: “Joy is in 155 verses in the KJV Bible, happiness isn’t in the Bible.”[v]

The problem with these statements is that they simply aren’t true. Happy is found in the King James Version, which Chambers used, a total of twenty-nine times. For example, Jesus told his disciples, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17). The apostle Paul wrote these words to Christians: “Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth” (Romans 14:22).

Just as holy speaks of holiness and joyful speaks of joy and glad speaks of gladness, obviously happy speaks of happiness!

Is it true that joy is not an emotion?

The idea that “joy is not an emotion” (a statement that appears online more than 17,000 times) promotes an unbiblical myth.

A hundred years ago, every Christian knew the meaning of joy. Today, if you ask a group of Christians, “What does joy mean?” most will grope for words, with only one emphatic opinion: that joy is different from happiness. This is like saying that rain isn’t wet or ice isn’t cold. Scripture, dictionaries, and common language don’t support this separation.

Some claim that joy is a fruit of the Spirit, not an emotion. But in Galatians 5:22, love and peace surround the word joy. If you love someone, don’t you feel something? What is peace if not something you feel?

I googled “define joy,” and the first result was this dictionary definition: “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” This definition harmonizes with other dictionaries and ordinary conversations, yet it contradicts countless Christian books and sermons.

God created not only our minds but also our hearts. It’s ill advised to pit happiness and joy against each other rather than embracing the emotional satisfaction of knowing, loving, and following Jesus.

Happiness is a synonym for joy.

Consult English dictionaries and you’ll see how contrived this supposed contrast between joy and happiness is. The first definition of joy in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is “a feeling of great happiness.”[vi] The American Heritage Dictionary defines joy as “intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness.”[vii]

What about Christian dictionaries? The Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines joy as “happiness over an unanticipated or present good.”[viii] The Dictionary of Bible Themes defines happiness as “a state of pleasure or joy experienced both by people and by God.”[ix] Happiness is joy. Joy is happiness. Virtually all dictionaries, whether secular or Christian, recognize this.

Consider our common expressions:

  • “He jumped for joy.”
  •  “He is our pride and joy.”
  • “I wept for joy.”

According to the vast majority of the usages of these two words in (1) English history, (2) English literature, (3) Bible translations, and (4) English dictionaries, the words have far more in common with each other than not.

Modern distinctions between happiness and joy are completely counterintuitive.

For too long we’ve distanced the gospel from what God created us to desire—and what he desires for us—happiness.

We need to reverse the trend. Let’s redeem the word happiness in light of both Scripture and church history. Our message shouldn’t be “Don’t seek happiness,” but “You’ll find in Jesus the happiness and joy you’ve always longed for.”

Learn more in Randy's book Happiness.

[i] Brian Cromer, “Difference between Joy and Happiness,” (blog), April 28, 2008.

[ii] John Piper, “Let Your Passion Be Single,” Desiring God, November 12, 1999.

[iii] Spurgeon, “A Happy Christian” (Sermon #736).

[iv] Oswald Chambers, Biblical Ethics (Great Britain: Oswald Chambers Publications, 1947), 14.

[v] “In Your Opinion, What’s the Difference between Joy and Happiness?” Yahoo! Answers.

[vi] Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (Britannica Digital Learning, 2014), s.v. “joy."

[vii] American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., s.v. “joy.”

[viii] Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), s.v. “joy.”

[ix] Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009), s.v. “happiness.”

photo credit: Осень в миниатюре via photopin (license)

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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