According to the Declaration of Independence, we are all endowed by our creator with the "right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But according to psychologists, we take that phrase a bit more literally than we ought to.

What's the difference between "happiness" and "joy"? The words are listed as synonyms in any thesaurus. Sure, they have slight gradations of meaning between them, but what really is the difference? If I were asked the question, I would probably say that joy is more intense than happiness. I feel happiness when I get to eat a warm cookie. Joy would take something more. Two cookies, at least.


It turns out I'd be wrong, or at least incomplete, in my assessment. A study indicates that we might see happiness and joy as fundamentally different things. Happiness is a thing to be pursued and sought. We look for happiness. We seek it out. Joy, on the other hand, is a quality that occasionally suffuses us. We are filled with joy, pretty much spontaneously.

To test this assessment, psychologists took a picture of a widely-smiling person to two different places. One was a coffee shop, where people were filling themselves with something. The other was a library, where people were searching for things. They asked the patrons at both establishments if the person in the picture was feeling happiness or joy. The people filling themselves with liquid, which would soon bathe their cells in caffeine, tended to pick joy. The ones pursuing a goal in the library picked happiness.

I find that I want to come up with different ways to test this idea. Perhaps take this picture to people in a bathroom. See if they still choose joy if they are filled with a different kind of liquid. And then, when they rid themselves of their "joy" and are looking for toilet paper, they might be more inclined to pick happiness.


I would also suggest showing the picture to a control group who are at a coffee place in a library. It should also have cookies.

Image: D. Sharon Pruitt

[Via Louder Than Words.]