What is the difference between happiness and joy? I remember this being a common evangelical youth group Sunday school topic. Happiness is feeling good when everything is going right, but joy is feeling good no matter how things are going because you have Jesus in your heart. I’ve always been a bit dissatisfied with the official Christian answer that joy is simply the more reliable, eternal version of the same thing that happiness is.
But lately I’ve been reading a book called Joyful Militancy by two Canadian anarchists Nick Montgomery and carla bergman. And the contrast that they draw between joy and happiness seems a lot more helpful than the evangelical youth group answer I had. They write:
Under Empire, happiness is seen as a duty and unhappiness as a disorder. Marketing firms increasingly sell happy experiences instead of products: happiness is a relaxing vacation on the beach, an intense night at the bar, a satisfying drink on a hot day, or the contentment and security of retirement… Neoliberal capitalism encourages its subjects to base their lives on this search for happiness, promising pleasure, bliss, fulfillment, arousal, exhilaration, or contentment, depending on your tastes and proclivities (and your budget). 
It is indeed the case that our society is built, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, on the “pursuit of happiness.” The engine that drives our economy is the consumerism that seeks to maximize pleasantness, comfort, and convenience in life and avoid discomfort, awkwardness, and chaos. There’s nothing wrong with seeking ways to experience relaxation and contentment in your life. The problem is that it’s innately unsustainable.
Happiness can never last, not just because bad things are bound to happen, but because sitting on the beach with an umbrella drink gets boring after a week or two. The Great Gatsby depicts this very well. As well as dozens of Joyce Carroll Oates novels about suburban dystopia. When people live in continuous luxury, they create petty dramas to entertain themselves and end up making themselves miserable. It’s great to have a life with lots of happy moments, but they need sad moments, angry moments, and fearful moments to be contrasted with. A life that tries to be only happy will make itself unhappy.
Montgomery and bergman contend that joy is a completely different animal than happiness:
A joyful process of transformation might involve happiness, but it tends to entail a whole range of feelings at once: it might feel overwhelming, painful, dramatic, and world-shaking, or subtle and uncanny. Joy rarely feels comfortable or easy, because it transforms and reorients people and relationships. Rather than the desire to exploit, control, and direct others, it is resonant with emergent and collective capacities to do things, make things, undo painful habits, and nurture enabling ways of being together… Joy is not an emotion at all but an increase in one’s power to affect and be affected. It is the capacity to do and feel more. [29-30]
This definition of joy makes it about agency: being fully alive, fully present, fully empowered in the midst of whatever circumstances. Joy does not preclude grief or rage; it means standing in the midst of grief and rage with dignity and power. Joy is both wild and at ease with itself. It is not anxious or conflicted, but it is absolutely explosive and contagious. Joy is not unobtrusive and polite to the people around it; it intoxicates some into shared rapture and goads others into disdainful disgust.
For a Christian, joy is Jesus healing on the Sabbath, cracking jokes with sex workers, flipping over the tables of money changers, weeping over his friend Lazarus, publicly humiliating religious authorities, agonizing on the cross, and flipping a divine middle finger at his oppressors when he rose from the dead three days later. The invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus is an invitation to live in the rich joy that Jesus lived in. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 12:2: ” For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The cross is the centerpiece of divine joy precisely in its excruciating torture, injustice, and wrath.
When I think about this understanding of joy, I think about the unruly black women I’ve known and loved who are accused of being “rude” and “divisive” because they tell the truth very plainly without all the fidgets, mutterings, and disclaimers that white people use to reassure each other and manage our anxieties. I think about my young sons 7 years ago diving into mud puddles in a furious rainstorm at a summer music festival. I think about Obi Wan Kenobi smiling at Darth Vader in the original Star Wars when he turns off his lightsaber and prepares to become one with the force. I think about the Palestinian families who wail and scream out “God is good!” while they carry the caskets of children who were picked off by Israeli snipers.
This kind of joy is sometimes spontaneously discovered, but it can also be cultivated through discipline. It’s not the sort of thing that you can just “manifest” yourself into by smoking weed everyday or burning the right scented candles. At the same time, I’m not sure the word discipline can really be paired with joy because discipline connotes a sort of middle-class orderliness and appropriateness that is not germane to joy.
I really like pairing the word militancy with joy, because militancy makes the same people nervous for the same reason that joy makes them nervous. People who are just looking for happiness are not going to be happy when joy interrupts them. Joy crashes happiness’s party and throws everyone into the swimming pool. Joy is militant about pursuing dreams ruthlessly, about not settling for less than the whole thing. Joy’s militancy is the holy dissatisfaction that isn’t ungrateful but will never stop pushing and diving deeper.
Joy is the deep aliveness that is available to people who refuse to settle for happiness alone. In my life experience, there are two things that come to mind as my most important sources of deeper joy: ascetic mystical practices and the involuntary, unplanned suffering I have experienced. Over the past decade, I have tried to fast every Monday and Friday until dinner. When I use that time for solitude and prayer (which isn’t regularly enough), I gain a rich aliveness in my relationship with God. The beauty and sacredness of the world becomes so much more palpable.
But my chronic illness ulcerative colitis has probably been the better engine for my journey into aliveness than any religious discipline. So many times I have had to squeeze my abdominal muscles and waddle distances of several hundred yards that feel like twenty miles to make it to a toilet, all the way begging God to carry me through. I had to use my breath to try to hold my body together long before I knew that breath work was even a thing. A few weeks ago, I shit my pants because I got stuck in traffic. It was the terror I had feared so absolutely, but once it happened I just had to clean myself up and get to my counseling client. And something became more alive in me through that experience.
There’s part of me that’s still mad at God that I haven’t had the clearly successful career trajectory that some of my peers have had as writers or pastors. Maybe the people who seem like they’ve gotten to walk on water have their own ways of gaining aliveness, but I do think that if things had been easy, I would never have gotten deep. And I like the deep better than I like the pleasant. Joy is so much richer than happiness.