What Is Joy?

Bastille, a British pop group, released “Joy,” in May 2019, the third single from their album Doom Days. “Joy” is quite a positive song—deviating from their normal pattern. While the majority of Bastille’s songs might sound upbeat and positive, the lyrics are usually quite dark and depressing.¹ But “Joy” is unique because the lyrics paint a happy picture, reinforcing the happy, euphoric sounds.

You can hear for yourself with the music lyrics video:

The lyrics begin with someone waking up on the kitchen floor, full of anxiety and fear—“my mind’s falling, fall in.” Then a phone call changes that when “your name lights up the screen.” One person’s call transformed the other person from despair to joy, as the chorus describes:

Oh joy, when you call me
I was giving up, oh, I was giving in
Joy, set my mind free
I was giving up, oh, I was giving in

Dan Smith, the lead singer and songwriter of Bastille, explained the meaning behind the song, saying, “It’s about getting a phone call from that one person who is able to set your head straight and pull you back from the brink … and reframe everything so it doesn’t seem so bad.”²

Finding Joy in True Friendship
We can all relate to what’s going on in this song. Maybe we don’t wake up on the kitchen floor—whether that’s from a “huge apocalyptic night” as the songwriter suggests or a panic attack—but I’m certain we’ve all experienced a time in our lives when something terrible happens or we’re just sad, and then a good friend is able to pull us out of the sadness and give us joy. They’re able to help us focus on something else and to set our minds free from the dark place we were in.

Whether it’s a good friend or a significant other, we can find profound support in other people. God made us for community. It’s a beautiful thing when we have people in our lives who know us so well that they’re able to pull us back from the brink of whatever sadness we’re facing and set us free to feel joy.

What is Joy, Anyway?
Or who is Joy? There is some discussion online about whether this whole song is referring to a person named Joy or if by “joy,” the lyrics are referring to the feeling that the person gets by talking to his friend, the feeling of having his mind set free. The songwriter seems to suggest the latter, though even in the former explanation, it still seems apparent that a person named Joy would also be a metaphor for the emotional feeling.

Regardless, it would be helpful for us to explore the meaning of joy further, and how it differs from the meaning of happiness, if it does at all. The world talks often about happiness, and the American Dream is often seen as the pursuit of happiness. Yet joy is a term that the world around us uses less frequently, so it’s interesting that Bastille embraces it here.

From their modern dictionary definitions, joy and happiness are synonyms. Some of their definitions even refer to the other. For example, one definition of joy is “a state of happiness or felicity” and one definition of happiness is “a state of well-being and contentment: joy.” Their other definitions are almost interchangeable. One definition of joy is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires” and “a source or cause of delight.” Similarly, another definition of happiness is “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”³

So, in current usage, joy does equal happiness, and happiness equals joy.

Of course, in Christian circles, these words often carry different connotations. Joy typically refers to a lasting, eternal peace and contentment with God, while happiness refers more to an emotion created by a fleeting moment of pleasure afforded by the world.

So What is Joy in the Bible?
In an interview, Randy Alcorn shared his study of the words joy and happiness in the Bible. Apparently the words happy and happiness occur often in English translations, and they tend to be used in close proximity and synonymously with the word joy. He says the Greek and Hebrew words which we translate either joy or happiness also tend to be interchangeable.4

Of course, in Christian circles, joy and happiness are sometimes used to distinguish, respectively, in my own words, “eternal, spiritual happiness and contentment in God” with “fleeting euphoric moments of pleasure in this world.”

Why do we do this? Because sometimes the world’s happiness is caught up in sin, and we’re attempting to show that “joy” is different. We’re not preaching a prosperity gospel, so sometimes, even though we have joy, our lives are still hard and full of sorrow. But perhaps this vague Christianese distinction between happiness and joy could actually be a stumbling block for both believers and nonbelievers.

Alcorn says, “Don’t talk of joy as this unemotional, transcendent thing and happiness as this worldly thing, because when we do that, we are pushing people, who all seek happiness, away from the Gospel.”5 Are we pushing people from the Gospel? And are we pushing them away because, deep down, we don’t actually think it makes us happy? Are we growing confused, thinking that the Gospel can only provide “joy”—something super-spiritual that’s quite unlike the happiness we feel when a friend calls us?

Maybe our need to label “joy” as something far different from “happiness” is a sign that we’ve taken for granted the beautiful grace we’ve been given: that having our sins forgiven truly is the greatest blessing and cause for happiness (see Psalm 32:1). And maybe we’ve confused prosperity with happiness.

Do Lasting Joy and Fleeting Happiness Have Some Similarities?
David Murray, pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church, identified seven categories of happiness: nature happiness, social happiness, vocational happiness, physical happiness, intellectual happiness, humor happiness, and spiritual happiness. He would say that the first six are part of common grace, which anyone in the world can experience, but that spiritual happiness comes only from being right with God. Interestingly, Murray says that the spiritual happiness is far greater than the other six put together.6

Though far greater, perhaps the lasting joy (or happiness!) that comes from being right with God isn’t completely different from a passing moment of happiness gained from an experience in the world. Maybe that fleeting moment of happiness is a miniscule picture of the overwhelming and amazing happiness that one gets with God.

Joy with Friends Points to Joy with God
So, when we think of Bastille’s song, yes, of course, joy comes from seeing a friend’s name on your phone, from being known so well by someone else. But it points to an exponentially greater joy of being fully known and loved by God.

Let’s continue to find joy in our friendships. And let’s be friends that others can depend on, so our friendship might give them joy. But let’s also thank God and find joy in him, the One who created those friendships and everything in this world that gives us happiness.

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Abby Debenedittis

Abby DeBenedittis is a freelance writer and the owner of Quandary Peak Editing. She likes to write about how faith in Jesus Christ influences ordinary life. She’s a fan of adventures in the Rocky Mountains, complicated board games, and lattes from local coffee shops.