Happiness vs. Joy

I think it’s safe to assume that we’re all familiar with the platitudes surrounding “happiness.” Some of the better-known quotes look like this:

“Learn to value yourself, which means: fight for your happiness” (Ayn Rand).

“The most important thing is to enjoy your life—to be happy—it’s all that matters” (Audrey Hepburn).

“Happiness depends upon ourselves” (Aristotle).

I admire all three of the above: Ayn Rand, Audrey Hepburn, and Aristotle, and deeply enjoy their philosophical and artistic works, respectively. But each of them has hit on the main problem that I have with “happiness:” it’s inherently self-centered. It’s completely subjective and enslaves you to whatever or whoever you need it to be…at the exact moment that you think you need it. While the state of being/feeling happy can be wonderful, or good, or worthwhile; chasing happiness for happiness’ sake is not only exhausting, it’s impossible. It’s like setting sail for the horizon: you can sail for an eternity, but you’ll never quite reach it, it’s always out in front of you.

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The futility in seeking out merely happiness is that it asks you to find it within yourself. How terrible! For my sake, if I’m looking for my own happiness, the pendulum swings pretty wildly. One day, being happy would be eating a burrito and French fries for every meal without gaining weight. The next day, it might be forsaking all of my responsibilities and going out of town by myself for a few days. See, the inherent problem in seeking out my own happiness is that it requires me to be the barometer of it. There is no anchor to happiness because it’s rooted in our feelings, which come and go. What makes me happy at one point in my life will most certainly not at another, which means that my definition of happiness will need to constantly change, and will also mean that I will never truly be happy.

The answer is fairly simple. The problem isn’t with happiness. Because what we need is not, in fact, happiness. It’s joy. Happiness is a state of being that exists because of our circumstances. Joy is a state of being that exists in spite of them. Happiness says that we have to chase it, pursue it, work for it, and earn it. Joy says simply: it’s free. A gift.

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Before we go any further, I am not finding my definition of joy in the dictionary, because it falls hilariously short. Merriam-Webster defines joy like this: “a feeling of great happiness.” Lol. If that were true, we can stop the blog here, because that definition of joy makes it sound even worse than happiness. We can’t even reach “happy” and now joy is telling us that it’s “happy, 2.0?” No thanks.

I get my definition of joy from the Bible and my faith as a Christian. Christian joy transcends happiness because it isn’t merely a feeling. Of course we can feel joy, but it cannot be just that, otherwise it would still be “happy.” Joy is part feeling, but it’s also part person. A person who exists apart from our own feelings or circumstances: Jesus Christ. Who rescued us through his life, death, and resurrection. We cannot make joy happen. Only Jesus can. Something he does through the work of his Holy Spirit, that fully reveals to us the beauty of Christ, through his Word (the Bible), and his world.

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And joy, unlike happiness, does not ignore suffering. Where happiness can only exist in a phony vacuum of positivity, joy exists right in the middle of the worst trials. We don’t have to ignore grief, or loss, or suffering, or pain to be joyful people. Real joy speaks directly to our suffering, because real joy is found in Christ, who suffered the most for us:

“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scoring its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3).

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Jesus came to earth, knowing he would suffer the worst of all. He would be despised and rejected, ultimately by God, who judged him in our place. And all for the “joy set before him.” That joy, Jesus’ joy? It’s us. You and me. His children. He suffered it all so that he could rescue us back, even though we don’t deserve it, and even though we continue to sin against him every day.

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How then, believing that, can we not experience and live out real joy in response? The real joy that comes in knowing that no matter what we might face on this side of heaven, no matter how hard, or how painful, Jesus has gone before us and has every moment, every molecule, every breath of our lives in his hands. He faithfully directs our steps, and we can joyfully follow where they lead.

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Sarah Dudley is wife to her wonderful husband, Clint, and mom to 2 great kids (James, 4, and Evie, 2). She’s lived in San Diego since 2001, when her Dad became pastor at her current church, New Life. She graduated from Covenant College in 2008 with a BA in English and Theatre. She is a stay at home mom and loves the joys and challenges of raising little ones to love and live for Jesus.

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