Happiness and joy are two different things. I know that there are smart, even brilliant, people who would argue that this is not the case, that happiness and joy are the same. Perhaps in a time gone by, the two words had more in common. Today? I don’t think so.
The “pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right given by the “Creator.” It says so right in the Declaration of Independence. Historian David McCullough points out in an article called John Adams and the Pursuit of Happiness that the founders may have had a very different view of what happiness meant than we do today. He writes, “(John Adams) is an example of the transforming miracle of education. When he and others wrote in the Declaration of Independence about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” what they meant by “happiness” was not longer vacations or more material goods. They were talking about the enlargement of the human experience through the life of the mind and spirit.”
For John Adams, “happiness” was something that came through hard work, education, and the gradual attainment of a greater good. Today, happiness is often pursued through pleasure, recognition, and a general avoidance of all that is unpleasant. When we say we just want our kids to be happy, we may be hoping they find meaning and purpose. It seems to me, however, that this desire is more about avoiding pain, suffering, and anything that makes them unhappy.
Happiness also seems to mean that we are “busy.” As theologian Andrew Root says in his book, The End of Youth Ministry? “Happiness is no longer a transcendent echo coming from eternity but a natural feeling we believe can be somehow uninterrupted.” We need to be happy all the time, and the pursuit of that feeling is up to us. This is another big difference between happiness and joy. Even for the founders, happiness was thing to be achieved, a work to be accomplished. It was up to each person to find it and possess it. Joy is a gift.
Where happiness seeks to avoid suffering and pain, joy is found in the middle of our struggles. Where happiness is a moment-to-moment struggle to achieve, joy is a gift that is eternal. As author Terry Pratchett writes in, A Hat Full of Sky “Joy is to fun what the deep sea is to a puddle. It’s a feeling inside that can hardly be contained.”
Root points out the limit of happiness in our age: “While we assume that happiness is a natural state, we fail to see that asking happiness to be a force field that keeps out all sadness is a biological impossibility. Death reminds us that happiness cannot do the work we ask of it.”
Wanting ourselves or our kids to be happy is to wrap life in spiritual and emotional bubble wrap that protects us from the reality of life. To desire joyful lives is to find the transcendent grace, mercy, and love that comes as a gift from God in our daily living. Root again: “Happiness is nice but flimsy. It is unable to give us meaning, purpose, direction, and ultimately flourishing. It can be no help in discerning whether we are aimed toward the moral horizon of the Good.”
We may pursue happiness. For life to have meaning, purpose, and the presence of God in all of life – not just the fun parts – we need to receive joy. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, scientist, and theologian wrote: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” That is what makes life worth living.
Tim Olson – Lead Pastor