Joy vs. Happiness
Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.
…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
the Declaration of Independence
My endless delights,
Happiness and joy are both good things. But not the same thing at all. Two images come to mind when I think of the difference.
First and more recent, your “Aunt” Karen makes a sweet bread that I have seen you consume like puppies discovering bacon. Her yummy treat is more like a dessert than a bread. I have never seen you eat any cake or brownie the way you devour her sweet bread. Eating that divine, moist, cinnamony, sugary treat makes you happy, right? And when you ask her for it, watch her slice it, sometimes heat it up and serve it up with a glass of cold milk, what happens in you is obvious: happiness, pure and simple. But what I have seen that maybe you missed because you were so focused on your pursuit of happiness is the joy on “Aunt” Karen’s face and in her voice as she serves you her sweet bread. She loves to watch you enjoy it. This happens every time…without fail. You get the happiness, but she gets the joy.
Here’s another way I picture the difference between happiness and joy.
My family grew up fishing with my dad. Before we were old enough to throw a hook out by ourselves without tangling the whole world in fishing line, dad used to set out a few lines from the bank or a dock. We would sit and wait, especially us boys. I remember my two sisters getting bored pretty quick and pursuing happiness elsewhere, picking flowers or playing in the camper out of the intense summer sun.
Here is how the scene would play out. Dad watched each line intently, I’m sure keeping one eye on us so we wouldn’t trip or tumble into the water. (Just like I have done whenever you were near a body of water as little ones.) When a fish started to nibble on a line he would carefully pick up that rod, wait for the right moment, and with a quick jerk set the hook. Then after making sure the fish was on the line, dad would hand the rod to one of us to fight the beast and haul it in.
On one occasion at a lake in Oklahoma I remember dad hooking a fish and handing the rod to my brother Barry. The line immediately bent into a great arc from the weight of a pretty hefty fish. This was no bluegill perch. Barry had a monster on the line. He began to complain under the pressure and cried out for help. I remember laughing and taunting him, like any big brother should. And I remember dad laughing and coaching Barry to keep the tip of the rod up and hold on. The drama got more and more intense, Barry wearing down and hoping not to be pulled to a watery death. Finally, what surfaced was not one monster, but two. Dad often tied two hooks on one line. This time it paid off. Barry hauled in two big mudcats at once! We were all whooping and hollering and beaming and very alive. Barry caught the fish. We boys got the happiness…and dad got the joy.
Let me get back to those two illustrations in a bit.
Let’s play that game we play on the way to school sometimes: “One of these things is not like the other.” Here are the three things: Life - Liberty - Pursuit of Happiness. Which one is not like the others? And why? Think about that for a bit.
I sometimes wonder if “Happiness” was the best word Thomas Jefferson could have used in that spot as he was drafting the famous Declaration. Why not the pursuit of “fulfillment” or “purpose” or “destiny?” The God-given right he actually framed was the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. In earlier drafts, Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable”.
I also wonder if the three rights he included are in order of priority? Life first and foremost? Liberty next? If you don’t have life you can’t have liberty, right? If you have Life but not Liberty, and those places exist today, you can’t really pursue Happiness very freely, right? Doesn’t that make sense?
Now I’ve given you more than enough help to answer which one is not like the other. Life, right? Why? Because it’s the one you have to have to make the other two possible.
Today, a lot of people have flipped the order and value of the three rights in the Declaration to reflect their own values: “Liberty, Happiness, and Life” for those who believe personal freedom is the highest right, even higher than someone else’s right to life. Or for those who are willing to give away some liberty as long as they are happy, the order of importance is “Happiness, Liberty, and Life.”
Many people have also conveniently dropped the phrase “pursuit of”. There is a growing belief in many people that by simply being born they have a right to be happy…not a right to pursue happiness. They have a worldview (how you see the world) that their family, the people around them and the government should support and help create their happiness.
By “happiness” does anyone really think Jefferson meant selfishness or even simple self-interest above all other values, even above the right to life? What this view does is place the self into the center of the universe…that it really is all about you. Imagine a world driven by that view. Ok, you don’t have to imagine…just look around. In one of her first big hits, the singer Janet Jackson sang “What have you done for me lately?” Another fabulously wealthy star of film and television told an interviewer, “I’ve reached a place in my life where I only do what I want to do when I want to do it.” Sounds desirable, doesn’t it? But admirable?
Here is another sign of that growing self-centered worldview.
When I was a kid my favorite magazine was called “Life”. It had great pictures of places and people and animals and events from around the whole world, a rich buffet of life on this planet. I remember reading through every page with great curiosity and wonder. Over the decades magazines became more specific. Life magazine gave way to “People”. Then “Us” came along. More recently, magazines like “Self” and “Moi” (French for “Me”) appeared on the scene. Meanwhile, in the internet world, “Facebook” and “Twitter” have created a personal, real time “magazine” focused entirely on me, myself and I. Now the entire planet can have a window into the most important, fascinating, bigger than life, center of the universe, person - me. The planet can know what I eat, read, think, wear…and what brings me “happiness.”
Let’s be clear, my dears, love of self is not necessarily a negative. It depends on the degree of self-love. In the extreme, love of self above all else is called narcissism, after the Greek god Narcissus. He loved the way he looked so much, he stared at his reflection in a pool, lost his balance, fell in and drowned. You’d think that would be a warning to movie and rock stars who obsess on their own images on electronic screens all over the world. They say love is blind. Apparently, narcissism is blind and potentially deadly. Narcissism goes beyond self-love to self-worship.
Jesus, himself, made it clear that love of self is natural, a given, and not a bad thing. He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Doesn’t that assume we look out pretty well for our own well-being? He calls us to apply that kind of care to our neighbor, too. That’s known around the world as the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do for you.” You can find it in Matthew chapter 7. Jesus also said things like, “Deny yourself”, and “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
So what does all this have to do with happiness and joy?
Well, take “Aunt” Karen’s sweet bread. What if she made it, never gave it away and ate it all herself? It might make her very happy - and very large. But that’s not why she makes it. In fact, have you ever seen her eat much of it? She makes it for the delight of others.
And what about my Dad’s hook-and-pass-the-rod kind of fishing? I know he loved catching fish himself. What if he had just let us watch him pull in those mudcats? It might have made him happy … but he landed a bigger catch – joy.
What I’m getting at is not an instruction against being happy, but a caution about making happiness your driving force. If the pursuit of happiness is at the center of your day, your activities, your emotions, and your worldview, you will, like too many people, settle for less.
For example, every Christmas we hear the expression, “It’s more blessed (“better” we say) to give than receive.” But most of us, especially as children, make a long list of what we want to get for Christmas. That list is usually a lot longer than the list of what we plan to give. And in focusing on getting, we settle for happiness when we could have joy.
Maybe most people don’t know or have forgotten that there is a much better pursuit than happiness, one with a richer payoff. Maybe they have not yet discovered that happiness is a by-product, that it actually happens when you are not focused on it as the main goal. I know, to look at our culture it’s easy to get the defeated feeling that we have passed the tipping point toward a self-driven, self-obsessed, extremely selfish society mainly concerned with the personal pursuit of happiness, pleasure and power and are entitled to it simply because we are here.
I still like to believe most people, deep down, know that joy is more sacred than the pursuit of happiness. The success of many great movies reflects this. The Blind Side, The Help, Life is Beautiful, Up, Elephant Man (one of my favorites), It’s a Beautiful Life, all bring that reality to the surface in millions of people…the reality that joy (and purpose) is found in giving, in sacrifice, in doing for and loving others, at the cost of personal happiness, safety and sometimes even life. Millions of people still respond deeply to these kinds of lives and stories. Maybe there is still hope for a wakeup call for some. People learn best from example. So, my hope is that the joy in your lives will speak volumes.
Here are some ways to tell if what you are pursuing and experiencing is happiness or joy. Happiness mostly flows from outside in. “Look at my new shoes!” “I got a raise!” “I won the lottery!” Joy generally flows from inside out. “You’re welcome.” “I know how you like ice cream and it was on my way.” “Glad I could help.” Happiness is most often tied to external conditions. Joy is more internal, deeper and often, but not always, fueled by the happiness or wellbeing of someone else.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Like the joy of a job well done. The joy of accomplishing a personal goal. The joy of being truly loved by someone - by God himself.
Whatever the source, joy and happiness have certain characteristics. Happiness is shorter than joy. Happiness is pretty local in time and space. Joy lasts longer and resists the erosion of time and location. Just the thought of that sweet bread and “Aunt” Karen can bring you joy right now, even when you are not with her and there is no sweet bread within reach. I can close my eyes and still hear the echo of my dad’s laugh and Barry’s complaints trying to land those fish. Happiness passes. Joy endures.
What if Thomas Jefferson had not chosen the phrase “pursuit of happiness”? What if he had chosen - “the possibility of joy”? No doubt people would still interpret that to suit their own agenda, just as they are doing today. In any case, the difference is clear.
So, my treasures, when given the choice between pursuing happiness or joy … pursue the things that bring joy. The prophet Nehemiah did not say, “Happiness is your strength”. He said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” My hope is that you aim your lives, earlier than I did, at a storyline marked by the pursuit of joy instead of your own happiness. And I predict you will find that happiness will come - and go - but the joy will still be sweet long after the sweet bread and fried catfish are gobbled down.