David Brooks, a New York Times journalist, spoke to graduating students at Arizona State University about the difference between happiness and joy. He then wrote about it in an editorial in the New York Times. We tend to seek happiness in our lives. How could our lives be better if we seek joy? David explains: “So while these talks are usually occasions to talk about professional life, my goal was to get them thinking about the future of their emotional lives, which is really going to be at the center of everything.
“There are two kinds of emotion present at any graduation ceremony. For the graduating students there is happiness. They’ve achieved something. They’ve worked hard and are moving closer to their goals.
“There is a different emotion up in the stands among the families and friends. That emotion is joy. They are not thinking about themselves. Their delight is seeing the glow on the graduate’s face, the laughter in her voice, the progress of his journey, the blooming of a whole person.
“Happiness usually involves a victory for the self. Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self. Happiness comes from accomplishments. Joy comes when your heart is in another. Joy is the present that life gives you as you give away your gifts.
“The core point is that happiness is good, but joy is better. It’s smart to enjoy happiness, but it’s smarter still to put yourself in situations where you might experience joy.
“People receive joy after they have over-invested in their friendships. The thing the wisest people say about friendship is this: Lovers stand face to face staring into each other’s eyes. But friends stand side by side, staring at the things they both care about. Friendship is about doing things together. So people build their friendships by organizing activities that are repeated weekly, monthly or annually.
“They say that love is blind, but the affection friends have for each other is the opposite of blind. It is ferociously attentive. You are vulnerable, and your friend holds your vulnerability. He pauses, and you wait for him. You err, and she forgives. Vulnerability is the only means we have to build relationships, and relationships are the only means we have to experience joy.”
Vulnerability is a softening of defenses, which can seem weak. In reality, it’s the opposite: strength. To bring joy into our lives requires being willing to be vulnerable in the important relationships of our lives. I like David’s distinction between happiness and joy. Sure, we want to be happy. It’s a feeling we experience within us; a state of being that is comforting. But joy transcends the self and shifts our attention to those we are in relationship with. Happiness can seem fleeting because we’re only relying on ourselves for it. Joy sustains us because we have companions on our learning journeys. We sustain our journeys by shifting our attention toward nurturing the relationships we’re in. Joy becomes the present that life gives us as we focus on giving ourselves to others.