Joy & Happiness

I had a discussion with a friend recently over the distinction in meaning between joy and happiness, as expressed by a pastor in a recent TV interview:

My friend makes a similar distinction in meaning as that pastor does, while I do not.  Dictionary definitions are not very helpful, since the dictionary that I generally use (Third College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, c. 1991) appears to make no distinction between the two terms, while the online dictionary that he regularly uses does.

In support of my view that any distinction between the two terms is blurred or not present at all, I’m listing the following songs, which cover a span of more than 160 years.  While we were in Liberia 40 years ago, we often sang #6 and #7.

1 Happy the Home by Henry Ware, Jr. (1846)

          Key Lines: Happy the home when God is there, and love fill every breast
Happy the home where Jesus’ name is sweet to every ear

2 Happy in My Savior’s Love by Harry Dixon Loes (1919)

3 Happy All the Time (author & copyright unknown, but prior to copyright of songbook, 1931)

           Key Line: With Jesus in my heart, from him I’ll never depart

4 Happy in Jesus Today by W.T. Chapelle (1936)

5 Happy Am I by Clayton P. Erb  (1956)

          Key Lines: Happy am I, Jesus loves me; He took my sins and He made me free

6 Happiness by William J. Gaither (1967)

I found happiness; I’ve found peace of mine
I found the joy of living, perfect love sublime
I found real contentment, happy living in accord
I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind
When I found the Lord

7 Happiness is the Lord by Ira Stanphill (1968)

Happiness is to know the Savior
Living a life within His favor
Having a change in my behavior
Happiness is the Lord

Happiness is a new creation
“Jesus and me” in close relation
Having a part in His salvation
Happiness is the Lord

Happiness is to be forgiven
Living a life that’s worth the livin’
Taking a trip that leads to heaven
Happiness is the Lord

Chorus:  Real joy is mine, no matter if teardrops start
I’ve found the secret – it’s Jesus in my heart!

8 Happy Am I by Mickey Holiday  (1971)

          Key Line:  Jesus is mine forever

9 Happiness Is by Bonnie Low (1982)

Happiness is Knowing that Jesus loves me
And Happiness is Knowing that God above me
Is looking after me And watching over me in love

10 Happiness Is by Evan Rogers, Nathan Fellingham (2007)

          Key Line:  Happiness is a sinner forgiven

Some Bible translators also have used the term happy in ways that blur a distinction from joy (see Matthew 5 in Today’s English Version – Good News for Modern Man, Phillips Modern English translation, Jerusalem Bible, The Source New Testament).

Now for your thoughts.  In terms of Bible translation, should translators avoid using the term happiness for the sake of readers who make a distinction between joy and happiness, or should they feel free to use the term happiness for the sake of readers who consider it synonymous with joy?

If a translation has a particular target audience, how can one determine whether that target audience makes a distinction between the two terms or not?

Thanks to Wayne for posting the relevant survey.  I’m wondering in what “important ways” those who selected that option consider the terms “different”.

22 thoughts on “Joy & Happiness

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Dan, your question begs another question, an exegetical one: do the various biblical references to joy and/or happiness, thinking mainly of those from the chairo root, all have a meaning closer to “joy” than to “happiness”, as defined by those of us who see a difference? You seem to assume an answer “yes”, and so would expunge “happy” from our Bible. I would not be so sure. There may be places where “happy” would fit the context better, e.g. Matthew 25:21,23 where NIV among other versions has “happiness”.

    You didn’t include “Oh Happy Day!” (any version) in your list of songs. Here at least you couldn’t write “Oh Joyful Day!”

    And there may be other contexts where a rendering “happy” would work, but “joyful” would not. I don’t think “happy” for makarios in the beatitudes etc is quite right, but it is better than “blessed”, and “joyful” certainly wouldn’t work.

  2. Mike Tisdell says:

    I think that recognizing the difference as it is commonly understood by the Christian community and communicating that difference in translation, is important. For those English speakers who do not recognize a difference in the meaning of these words, either word is acceptable and for those who do recognize a difference, the meaning that comes from the context is better communicated by using the specific words that most closely convey the meaning of the original.

  3. no one in particular says:

    “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
    Come to my arm, my beamish boy!
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
    He chortled in his joy.

    ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe

    Language is more creative than simple distinctions allow. Re happy, blessed, etc, I note that Kimhi points out the plural in all the makarisms in the Psalms: O the happinesses of the one who has not walked etc.

    These statements of happiness resulting are distinct from the joys and pleasures also expressed in the Psalms – so pattern-wise, we have separate words, not because they are different, but because they reflect the work of the Anointing in each age. There is no simple pattern of their use in the Psalter, but there is a use in every book and in some cases as an opening and closing frame – e.g. Psalms 1-2.

    I think it important that the patterns not be missed, so I would distinguish words carefully in translation.

  4. no one in particular says:

    sorry about having to comment like this – but my comments are being classed as spam – WordPress has it in for me.

  5. Mike Sangrey says:

    Joy has a depth or fullness. I would tend to use it more in poetry and in contexts composed with a higher register.

    Happiness seems to me to be simply an emotion.

    They both denote the same thing. But, joy is much more full of the meaning than happiness.

    I was so happy isn’t the same thing to me as I was joyful. The difference there appears to be one of register.

    I looked at wordnik’s happiness and joy. The first few lines in their definitions seem to capture what I’m trying to say.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    To me, more familiar with British English although now living in America, the difference is not just one of register. As an introverted Englishman I can be happy left alone with my books and computer. But I could never say I was joyful in that situation, at least unless I was trying to obey a biblical command “rejoice in all circumstances”. “Happy” to me comes across more as the absence of negative emotion, whereas “joyful” means filled with positive emotion – and, I would suggest, expressing this outwardly, although I know some Christians claim to be filled with deep joy while outwardly emotionless and sour-faced.

  7. mgvh says:

    I do make a distinction between joy and happiness. Partly I’m reacting to the common modern American response when asked what they hope for their children, “I just want them to be happy.” Well, that’s better than miserable, but it does seem shallow and not particularly enlivening to me.
    And if you want to quote music, how about Switchfoot’s “Happy is a Yuppy Word.” The song
    “takes its title from a 1991 interview Bob Dylan gave to Rolling Stone in which Dylan was asked, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, if he was happy. Dylan replied, “Those are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It’s not happiness or unhappiness, it’s blessed or unblessed.””

  8. Robert Berman says:

    And what about “glad”? That seems like a word geared to some particular circumstance, e.g. “I was glad there were still some tickets left.” It calls out the transient nature of the response in a way that “happy” or “joyful” do not.

  9. dickscott says:

    Thanks for a great blog about God and hes son Jesus.It seems to me like joy is more of a sustainable feeling then hapiness although it means the same in general. I think its not always better with new translations of the Bible, some passages dont get the same meaning.

  10. Dannii says:

    There is a difference between joy and joyful too. Happiness is I think much more closely related to happy than joy is to joyful.

  11. elnwood says:

    As others have said, I distinguish between “joyful” and “happy.” Happy seems more emotions-based and more transient, whereas joyful represents something deeper and abiding.

    For those who say they don’t make a distinction, I wonder something. Is it simply that you can’t draw a lexical distinction, or do you also use the words interchangeably? Sometimes words have indistinguishable lexical meaning, but we would never use them in the same way, or in the same context. We may not be able to articulate a difference, but our word usage betrays us.

    Examples: “I ate some chocolate today. Chocolate makes me happy.” I would never say that chocolate makes me joyful.

  12. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Elnwood, As I thought about your example, I realized that I don’t recall ever using the adjective “joyful” or the noun “joy” in normal conversation in my entire life, or maybe that’s just a memory failure. But I do use the verb “enjoy” often, possibly because it’s shorter/quicker than “makes me happy”.

  13. Brenda Boerger says:

    Hello friends,

    On this day when I’m blue, down, lacking hope, and feeling in a rut, it seems an excellent time to talk about happiness, joyfulness, blessedness, and contentedness.

    Psalm 1:1 literally starts, “How blessed is the man…” However, I do not see the traditional ‘blessed’ as either ‘blessed’ or ‘happy,’ as the best translation, which is what most English translations do. This two-syllable ‘bles-sed,’ as opposed to ‘blest’ is generally only used in a religious context making it unnatural in every day English. Furthermore, most Bible readers assume it means “blessed by God.” However, Hebrew scholars say that ‘blessed’ means that a person’s circumstances warrant his being congratulated. Therefore, the focus is on how others perceive the person, not on the person’s emotional state. The most natural way to convey that meaning in English is, “You’re lucky!” or “You’re fortunate!” Even though some people object to these because they say it isn’t luck, but God, ‘fortunate’ is however, the most accurate English equivalent.

    We don’t congratulate people by saying, “You’re happy!” Happiness focuses on a person’s emotional state, which would be in error. Furthermore, the NT beatitudes make no sense using ‘happy,’ as in “Happy are those who mourn because God will comfort them.” They’re not happy. They’re mourning! It is both more accurate and more sensible to say, “Fortunate (whether they feel it or not) are those who mourn, because God will comfort them.” So in my translations into English, I generally use either ‘fortunate’, ‘fulfilled’ or ‘content’, though the latter two move the focus from how a person’s circumstances are perceived by others to how a person perceives them himself. Goerling (2000:54) suggests ‘tranquility.’ This latter shift to self-perception is a compromise, but still preferable to ‘blessed’ or ‘happy,’ since one can be content and tranquil in the midst of mourning. In wisdom psalms ‘blessed’ is translated ‘wise,’ following Goerling, as well as Wendland (2000:43) who says, “The word “blessed” is frequently used to describe the wise person who lives to please God (e.g. Ps. 34:8).”

    So in hopes of being wise, I yield my current circumstances and unhappiness to the Lord and pray for him to convey his presences, his hope, and his blessings. It is difficult to see them right now.

    Content that He is sovereign in the midst of my unhappiness,

  14. Brenda Boerger says:


    Some of the song lyrics quoted above may not be focusing on the best word to use semantically, but the one that best fits the rhyme scheme and meter–how many syllables are there and where is the stress?

    Therefore, it could be misleading to equate such uses in songs.


  15. Dan Sindlinger says:

    Brenda, that thought occurred to me, too. “Happiness” doesn’t fit the meter of “Joy to the world”.

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thank you, Brenda, for the analysis. I think you’ve quite well presented the difficulties translators have with this word group.

    I too think that “you’re lucky” is quite close. But, as you say, there’s that theological (or philosophical) issue. One which almost seems to have roots down to the bedrock of our own cultural identity.

    I couldn’t help but think about the phrase, “meanings we don’t have words for” as I read what you wrote. This phrase is usually used in reference to ‘sniglets‘. But, the fact is, it’s the nature of language that such meanings frequently exist, though rarely are they intentionally observed. How could they be otherwise?

    And, when we have to transfer a meaning from one language to another, “meanings we don’t have words for” becomes all too clear. It’s in these cases we tend to fall back on what is common or traditional, which, in my opinion, is a mistake. Not that tradition, or even the common, is somehow wrong. But, it’s my hope the original meaning would be conveyed, even though often quite difficult in all its layered complexity.

    Your comment also made me think of Romans 8:26, which I might render this way:
    The Spirit himself intercedes with groaning, wordless, pleas.

    Meanings without words–sometimes, after a great effort to reach across the linguistic chasm, we’re still left with an exceptional Spirit to complete the bridge.

  17. David Frank says:

    Though the topic here is “joy” and “happiness,” I am responding to the discussion of a related word, “blessed.” Brenda Boerger and Mike Sangrey were discussing the lack of a good word to translate passages such as Psalm 1:1 and the Beatitudes. Boerger points out that “We don’t congratulate people by saying, ‘You’re happy!'” Something close in English might be “You’re lucky,” but that has problems.

    At Psalm 1, the UBS Translator’s Handbook says, “Blessed is the term regularly used in the Old Testament to describe a person who is in a good situation and deserves to be congratulated. The Hebrew word does not mean precisely that God blesses, or rewards, such a person; rather it means that such a person is happy, or fortunate, deserving congratulations. It is translated in the Septuagint by the same Greek adjective used in the Beatitudes (Matt 5.3-11), and the same word or phrase should be used here that is used to translate the Greek word in Matthew. A word such as ‘Lucky,’ which implies chance, should not be used.”

    What about “congratulations to”?(Perhaps this should be spun off as a new blog post, but I’m not sure I would be the best one to do that.)

  18. Mike Sangrey says:


    I guess it’s my linguistics bent that always makes me look at words, phrases, and even much larger texts more closely.

    What do you mean by “attitude of the heart”?

    It appears to be a relatively popular expression. There’s even a web site with that name. I’m just not sure what it actually means. Does it mean simply attitude–“A settled way of thinking or feeling, typically reflected in a person’s behavior.”

  19. Robin Brady says:

    True joy is the ongoing discovery of the nature of our Lord Jesus Christ in our lives; His tender care of us when our lives are reeling. Often times, this discovery–always joyful–comes about through hardship, trials, rejections, all of which are unhappy to go through. BUT…God is chiseling us in order to conform us to the image of Christ. It hurts, but the more of Him we see and the more we know Him, the greater our joy, which enables us to bear up for each new trial, having learned in the fire that we can trust Him–and only Him. Therefore, take heart, Christian. He Who has done a good work in you will surely bring it to perfect completion by the blood of the Lamb. Joy is gain; happiness passes.

  20. tomebeka says:

    I believe that they basically have the same meaning. Of course, there subtle differences between those words, but those differences are so subtle that we do not need or even cannot mention those differences. We don’t split hairs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s