I recently learned that an older acquaintance (I’ll call him Jake) has moved into a nursing home because of advanced health problems. Although there were several options for such care in the local community, Jake was moved several miles away to a place in a neighboring town. It seems that the local nursing homes wouldn’t welcome him. Jake lived in a rural community most of his life and during those years Jake used, cheated, manipulated, and hurt people whenever he saw an opportunity that benefited him. Jake seemed to find happiness when his bank balance increased, when he got his way, or when he was mean and nasty enough to win a dispute. Jake believed that his happiness was all that mattered and used every trick in the book to control people and situations. The results of living such a life are predictable. Long ago his wife and children abandoned him. As Jake aged, he had difficulty finding people willing to help him with various tasks. While his life had moments of happiness it was predominately marked by loneliness. While we might think that Jake’s difficulties are an extreme example of pursuing personal happiness, we can acknowledge that they are the natural outcome.
Jake is not alone. Happiness has been the Holy Grail of life from ancient times. However, as illustrated by Jake’s story, happiness will not sustain life and its unhealthy pursuit will ultimately lead to unspeakable emptiness. So if happiness is not the answer, what is? I’m confident that the answer is joy.
Mistakenly, happiness and joy have often been seen as the same thing. While both are emotions, happiness is the outward expression of a temporal pleasure while joy is the expression of inward contentment. With this understanding, it is easy to see why the unbridled search for the next experience of happiness leads people into so many life problems. Joy, on the other hand, illuminates a path that avoids many of the pitfalls that the pursuit of happiness alone offers. A practical difference between happiness and joy exists. Happiness does not stand up under tragedy yet joy can abound in the midst of dreadful circumstances. With joy many temptations are void of their enticement; the lure of poor choices for temporary pleasures evaporates, while the pains of life’s heartbreaks and tragedies are dulled. In short, joy offers a fuller, more robust life experience.
It seems an obvious choice; joy over happiness, yet the majority of people seem to choose the latter. This is probably because the path to happiness is much shorter and appears to be an easier choice. In truth, it is a path that is far more exhausting as it must be trekked repeatedly. Once the pinnacle of happiness is reached, the emotion begins to wane, thrusting the wanderer into pursuit of yet another pinnacle experience. Indeed, joy is a more difficult and longer path but the journey is far more rewarding and enduring.
Joy, then, occurs in the presence of contentment, when the inner person is at peace. In my experience, joy begins with a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Apart from this relationship I find no hope for a life of joy. Within this relationship with Christ is found purpose, status, value, sufficiency, and other healthy psychological constructs. Within this relationship are found answers to life’s unsettling experiences with evil, injustice, tragedy, disease, and death. Within this relationship the “who, what, where, when, and why” of life is found. With these answers in hand, joy can abound and when joy abounds there is an unfathomable strength to live life victoriously.
I’ve given up trying to be happy. I’ll pursue joy every time. Though I’ve noticed something odd. While pursuing joy, I’ve found more happiness than I ever imagined.