How superficially must happiness engage us, after all, if it can leave us time to think and worry about how long it will last.” —Rainer Maria Rilke
What is the difference between happiness and joy?
In his essays on the holiday of Sukkot, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes that happiness means doing and faring well; it is the outcome of a moral life.
At the same time, he writes that happiness depends on external circumstances.
Tony Robbins teaches something similar, observing that happiness is when your “life conditions equal your blueprint.” In other words, when the circumstances of your life match your expectations for how it should be.
But what about when things don’t play out so well? How can we speak of happiness in an age of terror and school shootings and political chaos?
Rabbi Sacks observes that it’s easy to speak of happiness
When the world is in a state of order, when there is peace and good governance and accountability, when there are shared values within a society and those who are blessed share their blessings with the vulnerable and the destitute, when the great and the good are indeed great and good…. 
What do we have when we are in a state of “radical insecurity?”
This is where we rely on joy.
In contrast to happiness, joy lives in the moment, in each breath. It embraces the power of now.
Rabbi Sacks writes
Joy embraces the contingency of life. It knows that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is unknown. It does not ask what was or what will be. It makes no calculations. It is a state of radical thankfulness for the gift of being. Even in an age too fraught for happiness, there can still be joy.
joy is a marvelous increasing of what exists, a pure addition out of nothingness.
Joy is not conditioned on things going well. It doesn’t ask how long it will last. It just is.
Individual vs Social
A crucial distinction, according to Rabbi Sacks, is that happiness is individual while joy is social.
We can feel happiness on our own. But joy is meant to be shared; it is a form of “social emotion.”
Joy is the fuel that can propel us through life’s challenges. Rabbi Sacks writes that “joy solves no problems but it gives us the strength to keep searching.”
While happiness might be self-absorbed, “joy liberates the soul from the prison of the self.”
Joy is the secret to sustaining faith through the period of radical uncertainty that plagues our world.
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Sukkot Machzor, Introduction, p.xlvi ↩