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Choose Joy

Go beyond happiness with your partner.

Key points

  • Happiness is an emotion and joy is a feeling, and as such the latter includes a cognitive appraisal.
  • Both happiness and joy can enhance your relationship.
Courtesy of Pexels, Julia Avamotive
Source: Courtesy of Pexels, Julia Avamotive

Happiness is a basic human emotion. It was categorized as such by famous emotion researcher and psychologist Paul Eckman, who identified the six emotions that are present in all cultures from birth. These emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and fear. You often notice that a person is happy by their facial expressions (smiling and twinkling eyes) and tone of voice (upbeat and excited). Happiness has been connected to relationships, in that research has shown that those who are happy experience greater marital satisfaction, and vice versa; those who have a great deal of marital satisfaction are often happy. Lucas and Clark (2006) challenged the marriage/happiness boost link often demonstrated by research and found that participants who get married show short-term increases in happiness, which is followed by adaptation back to a baseline level of well-being. They demonstrated that the benefits of marriage may be short-lived when it comes to overall happiness.

Rather than happiness, it is important to seek joy within your relationships, as this feeling goes beyond the emotion of happiness and can have a profound effect on your life and your partner’s. Below are some differences between happiness and joy related to relationships.

Happiness is an emotion. Joy is a feeling.

Emotions are associated with physiological responses, or body reactions, such as smiling for happiness and crying for sadness. Feelings, on the other hand, involve cognitive appraisal, or an internal thought process. Therefore, emotions may happen, whereas feelings are chosen as a result of processing and thinking about the situation. For example, when Sally watches Jim hug their son, she smiles and experiences happiness. She then thinks about what a good and caring father he is, and experiences joy.

Happiness is based on external circumstances. Joy is based on internal experiences.

Happiness is often based on something external or environmental, whereas joy involves internal processing and the determination that something is meaningful. For example, Eric just told Justine that he thinks she looks pretty. This praise makes her happy. In the same scenario, Justine thinks about how important to her it is that Eric takes time to notice her and compliment her, which shows how thoughtful he is. She experiences joy in the connection she has with him.

While the difference between joy and happiness is challenging to discern at times, both are important to relationships. Infusing more joy can help couples strengthen their partnerships. There are many ways that you can consciously and proactively focus on joy in your relationship, a few of which are highlighted below.

  1. Actively listen to your partner. The more you listen, the better able you will be to understand and empathize with your partner, which can lead to closeness and joy.
  2. Accept your partner. Practicing acceptance of your partner as they are will allow you to experience joy. Rather than trying to change your partner or compare your partner to others, notice the aspects of your partner that bring you joy and connection.
  3. Be present with your partner. Rather than focusing on the “what ifs” or “shoulds”, be in the moment with your partner so that you can value your joint experiences and take joy from them.


Lucas, R. E., & Clark, A. E. (2006). Do people really adapt to marriage? Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(4), 405-426.

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