Happiness, Joy, and Contentment: the Trifecta of Satisfaction

At my previous job, the executive board would present awards and recognitions to employees at the Christmas banquet. One year, they held a company-wide contest to determine which employees best exemplified a list of sixty character traits, including honesty, perseverance, and selflessness. We were all given a sheet of paper and told to assign the name of an employee to each trait. My department was surprised to find out that each person received a peer-voted character trait of their own; my character trait was joyful.

Since receiving this award, I’ve often contemplated the nature of happiness vs. joy. In my own faltering definitions, I would describe happiness as a reactionary feeling, while joy is an state of being that radiates from within. In other words, happiness is a byproduct and joy is a character trait. I am not an etymologist, nor do I claim any type of authority on root words and original languages, but let’s work on the assumption that these definitions are true. If we expound upon them, we can surmise that it is possible for a person to be joyful without being or appearing happy, but happiness is a result of joy. If so, let’s take this a step further into contentment. Contentment may be defined as desiring no more than what one has; to be satisfied.

Contentment (or satisfaction) breeds joy, which in turn creates happiness. Does it stand to reason that a person needs to feel contentment to feel true joy and/or happiness? In my experience, “happy” and “joy” are used synonymously, but “content” is hardly interchangeable. “I am happy” or “I feel joyful” is easy; “I am content” is a whole different ballgame. Often my attitude is mirrored by my circumstances. “I am content with my job today; therefore, I am happy to do whatever is asked of me.” “I am not content with how this project is turning out; therefore, I am not happy with my work.” “I can’t be joyful today! Did you see how my pants are fitting?” (“I am not content with my caffeine level, forget joyfulness!”)

If I am not content with my current state of existence, I may experience temporal bursts of happiness, but I will never experience true, lasting joy. If I am not filled with joy, I will not affect my world or bring about change. If I do not display happiness in my countenance, how can I expect to bring happiness to others? I don’t want to live my life just for me; I want to matter. I want to make a difference. I want to experience joy, radiate happiness, live contentment. I want to be satisfied not only in my work productivity and publications, but also in my state of existence.

How do I do that? Constant introspection, evaluation of motives, and implementation of principles. Happiness cannot be contrived, joyfulness cannot be faked, contentment cannot be forced. Our Trifecta of Satisfaction can be found when we acknowledge our limitations, accept our insecurities, and strive for deeper understanding of contentment. Knowing, all the while, that we are in the center of where we should be and are seeking to go further into what we could be. I know that I am where God wants me. I am content, joyful, and happy here. It is here that I am satisfied.

The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance; the wise grows it under his feet.  ~James Openheim

One filled with joy preaches without preaching. ~Mother Theresa

For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. ~Philippians 4:11


3 thoughts on “Happiness, Joy, and Contentment: the Trifecta of Satisfaction

  1. My name is Joy, so the concept of what the noun means has always fascinated me. Sometimes, when my mother found me in a less-than-contented mood, she’d remark “Joy is just a name.” But you’re right – it really shouldn’t just be a name, or else my behavior will render me unable to better the life of anyone around me.

    Your provisional definitions strike me as mostly on-point, especially the bit about how contentment may be transitory and our attitudes may be dependent on circumstances. But I’ve also heard people (usually pastors, exegetes, or laymen discussing Paul’s journeys) say that happiness depends on our circumstances, whereas joy is happiness despite our circumstances (is this splitting hairs? After all, then it still springs from within, as you say). And then there’s C.S. Lewis’s definition (never far from my mind) that joy is a sort of yearning for we know not what, a yearning which is more piercing and sweeter than any earthly pleasure. What is to be done with all the possible meanings?

  2. Personally, I think each definition of joy adds a new layer to the wonder of the word. Like a rose bud, each “petal” of a defining attribute gives more beauty to the word. I do love you name!

  3. Pingback: Contentment: Wanting What I Have | The Life and Times of a Communications Coordinator

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