There is only one true desire. All of our longings, goals, and motivations are reaching toward a single fulfillment. The ultimate pot of gold that we long to reach at the end of our infinitude of rainbows is joy. Embracing joy is the driving force that helps us to get out of bed each day and the reason for every choice we make—whether we consciously recognize it or not.

In one way or another, everything we choose to do is because we want to experience joy. Sometimes we take a direct route to joy, such as smelling a lovely flower or listening to a baby laugh. Other times, when we harm ourselves or others it is because we are experiencing a lack of joy, and with our limited perspective in that current moment we believe that a negative act will move us away from suffering and towards joy. This is a common misperception.

“Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” ~ Robert Schuller

In moments where we are hurting, our souls ache to feel joy, but most often the best we can experience at the moment is a feeling of relief. It feels better to criticize someone we love than to feel abandoned. It feels better to seek retribution than to feel powerless. We feel relief any time we move further from suffering. Any upward movement is good–it’s better–but we are climbing up the wrong ladder. We are inching toward happiness, not joy. However, joy can be found at any point along the climb.

The phrases happiness and joy are interchanged often, but there is an important conceptual distinction I would like to make between the two. Most people view happiness as an emotional state—a positive affect or the absence of negative feelings. Happiness is elusive for most people in the United States. Our culture focuses almost exclusively on happiness that is based on attaining or obtaining. Happiness is a feeling we hope to experience when we accomplish a certain task, acquire a specific item, reach a goal, or find a soul mate. Ask yourself if you’ve ever caught yourself saying, “I’ll be happy when…” We all do it, and for most of us happiness always remains something coming in the future.

That’s not to say we don’t experience happiness in fleeting moments immediately after receiving one of the objects of our desire. We do, but all emotions are subject to the law of opposites or balance. The bad comes with the good. Energy is never created nor destroyed. For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. You get the point.

“The thing that gives you pleasure today will give you pain tomorrow or will eventually leave and cause pain.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

Joy, along with love and peace, are your true self. They have no opposites. So how can you tell you are experiencing joy as opposed to happiness? Ask yourself “Would I feel lacking if this experience suddenly disappeared?” For example, if you are truly enJOYing a breathtaking sunset you are lost in the moment, in awe of the beauty. If suddenly a storm cloud blocks your view and causes you to run for cover, would you be angry? No, you would be left with a feeling of peace and gratitude for the experience you just had. Now imagine you just got a phone call from the company you had your heart set on for hiring you to take a new position. You got the job! How exciting! But, the next day you receive another phone call just as you’re in the middle of posting the good news on Facebook, and they have bad news. You didn’t get the job. How do you feel? The opposite of how you felt the day before?

Happiness, as we commonly view it, is a feeling we experience due to an external event or object that we judge as positive and desirable. Unless you want your emotional state to constantly be at the mercy of the outside world—the actions of your family, partner, or that crazy driver who cut you off this morning or whether or not you have the nicest yard in your neighborhood or the latest fashions—you may want to consider focusing on what you REALLY want, which is joy. So, if joy is NOT the same thing as happiness, what is it and where do we find it?

When seeking an answer to such an important question, perhaps the ultimate question in life, I find comfort in the wisdom of those among us who have proven to experience the joy we all seek. The following are insights from some of the greatest teachers of our time.

“Joy is not in things; it is in us.” ~ Richard Wagner, famous German composer. Pleasure obtained from any object is short lived, as by nature all objects are impermanent. All positive emotions are generated within you, therefore nothing external is ever responsible. “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your JOY.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, famous Buddhist monk, author, teacher. It is true that a smile, even if you are feeling sad, tricks your brain into believing you are happy and releasing feel-good chemicals into your bloodstream. Fake it ‘till you make it!

“Have you lived 10,000 or more days or have you lived one day 10,000 or more times?” ~ Wayne Dyer, author, motivational speaker. We often restrict our experiences of the joy that we so deeply seek by placing limits on ourselves. A child can look at a grasshopper for hours – just because they enjoy it – so why can’t we?

“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” ~ Guatama Buddha, spiritual leader. Indeed, the belief that through meditation, prayer, positive thought, and mindfulness deep joy and peace can be obtained is pervasive among nearly all religions and belief systems across the globe. It would behoove us all to dedicate more of our time and energy on any activities which elicit mindfulness.

“What I know for sure is that you feel real JOY in direct proportion to how connected you are to living your truth.” ~ Oprah, television personality, inspirational leader. “If you are not living in Joy, you are out of integrity with your Soul.” ~ Michael Bernard Beckwith, new thought minister, visionary. Ironically, many of us spend a great deal of our lives trying to be who we think we have to become in order to obtain the happiness we strive for, when the most direct route to true joy is to live in integrity with who we truly are.

“Winning is important to me, but what brings me real joy is the experience of being fully engaged in whatever I’m doing.” ~ Phil Jackson, retired professional basketball coach. Just as athletes report euphoric, joyful experiences when they are “in the flow” we can all touch the depths of the joy that we are when we are fully present and engaged in any activity we are passionate about.

“Joy is what happens when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things are. Joy is not necessarily what happens when things unfold according to our plans.” ~ Marianne Williamson, author, motivational speaker. Gratitude for what IS is perhaps the greatest tool one can use to experience joy at any moment. By acknowledging what IS and feeling appreciation for it, we remove the requirement for some future event or object to exist in order for us to feel joy.

“Release the joy that is inside of another, and you release the joy that is inside of you.” ~ Neal Donald Walsch, author, motivational speaker. Even when you find yourself in your darkest moments, an act of service will always bring light to your world. Studies have shown that simply being the observer of an act of kindness releases the same endorphins in your brain as both the person receiving and giving the act.

“The only true measure of success is the amount of joy we are feeling.” ~ Esther “Abraham” Hicks, spiritual teacher. There is only one desire, one core goal contained within all attempts at success. The good news is we don’t have to wait.

Our joy is not limited to some future moment; it is available to us now, always, in the eternal present.

Author's Bio: 

Natalie, Publisher of Transformation Magazine, has worked with thousands of people seeking to live a life of purpose and genuine relationship with their true selves, others, and their world. She is the former Director of a counseling center for teenagers and their parents. She is also a public speaker and leads workshops and retreats on Practical Spirituality, Finding Joy, Discovering Your Purpose, and Enlightened Relationships.