Less happiness, more joy

Less happiness and more joy
(Irina`, Flickr)
There has been a lot of serious psychological and neurobiological research on happiness in recent years, sussing out and measuring its elusive components. The findings are occasionally popularized for lifestyle magazines and newspapers; though if you desire to really stay abreast you can subscribe to peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journals on the field.

I’m sure some of this works is quite good and helpful, but I’m also pretty sure that we’re too focused on happiness, particularly at the popular level where the descriptive work of scientist becomes the prescriptive advice of media personalities, much of which seems mainly to affirm our own self-centeredness and, given how the advice is marketed, reinforce our consumerist culture as well.

Part of the problem is that we’re lousy about separating happiness from joy. Happiness has a lot to do with happenstance; they both pertain to occurrences. Simply put, we are happy when good things happen. It’s external and defined by things outside ourselves — very similar to luck. We say a person is lucky because of the things that happen to them.

Joy is different because it’s driven more by internal factors. We are joyful for internal reasons, not external ones. It pertains to inward perceptions and realizations. Instead of luck the mind turns to gladness and delight.

They may both manifest in our wellbeing, at least temporarily, but the differences between happiness and joy add up much more than a pile of split hairs, particularly as the concepts play out in our society. One tends toward grasping and consumption, the other toward contentment and satisfaction. These differences are especially pronounced when the means to pursue happiness are spent in the midst of trials and difficulty, which we are bound to face and which God even sends our way to help mature us, grow us, and conform us to the image of Christ.

John Chrysostom once spoke of the person who has the best of circumstances but is still is plagued by misfortunes. Happiness, he said in so many words, is fleeting. Joy is a different matter. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul talks about the church there “receiv[ing] the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”

How can affliction and joy co-exist? “The affliction is in things bodily,” answers John Chrysostom, “and the joy in things spiritual. How? The things which happened to them were grievous, but not so the things which sprang out of them, for the Spirit does not allow it. . . . [S]uch is the joy of the Spirit. In return for the things which appear to be grievous, it brings out delight.”

Whatever our outward circumstances, even very bad ones, our joy is internal because it rests in Christ and the Holy Spirit who indwells us. This is why Paul can say to the Philippians,

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!… Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus…. I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

There are a million things that can happen each day to dampen our spirits. But our joy is not found in happenstance. It is found in Christ, and he gives us all things — easy things, fun things, hard things — for our ultimate good.

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  • I love this post. You make a really important distinction. I think this is another area where we need to be careful not to be conformed to the world.


    • Thanks. We need to calibrate our hearts to the Gospel, not our commercial culture.

  • Great thought. We seem to be living in a “happiness addicted” society. Happiness depends on happenings. I glad I know the joy of Christ which doesn’t change.

    • “Happiness-addicted” sounds about right. We get on a crazy cycle if we keep looking for the next good thing to happen, and our consumerist economy drives that cycle.

  • It is important, though, to take periodic sabbaticals from joy, lest one become overjoyed.

  • So well said and so timely. Thanks for the post Joel.

  • I appreciate your thoughts. So much of this is cultural, I think. We have become tireless experts at feeding our flesh, but inside, our souls are weak and weary from years of starvation.