Joy and Happiness

Growing up, my family never went on a vacation. My father kept my brothers and I busy during the summers building walls or patios, painting houses and doing landscaping, butI can still remember loving the rhythm of the summer, the longer days, warm evenings and being outside.  When I got married, I was introduced to going somewhere (Maine) for a summer vacation.  My wife and my daughters loved spending two weeks in the small, unassuming fishing village of Stonington with and incredible beauty of the rugged coastline.  I still can remember our two girls racing down the pier at the harbor and the word that comes to mind is joy.  Joy for them seemed natural.  Being in the moment, in a beautiful place, with the people I loved most, and taking the time to appreciate all the blessings I had gave me a deep sense of peace and of joy as well.

When I look around at people, I often wonder how many of them are truly happy in life and in their relationships.  Statistics show the number of people that consider themselves as “very happy” is going down, especially for young people who seem more stressed, more anxious and less connected to community and family than ever.  Surveys show that people on Facebook are 39% less happy, and while people with strong religious faith are twice as happy as those that are non-religious, more people are leaving their religious faith.  (And you may not have known this statistic but “85% of the Seven Dwarfs aren’t Happy” according to humor speaker Andrew Tarvin.) 

I would assume that most people want to be happy and want their kids to be happy in life.  As a society, it seems as though we have gotten more busy and working to pursue an endless string of distractions, pleasures, and stuff to make us feel happy - so why are less people feeling happy?  Maybe it is connected to our contemporary tendency to reduce the intrinsic depth and meaning of important things to feelings.  Our definition of love has become more about how I feel than what I actively will for and give to another.  Also, we tend to feel happy when things are going well and not so happy when they are not.  We get a raise, a promotion or get recognized and we have a temporary feeling of happiness or we feel less happy if someone else gets more or does better than us.  The thing about this kind of “happy” is that it is dependent on external things.  When those things change or I have less relative to others, I can go from feeling up or happy to feeling down or sad in an instant.  We think that the things we strive for, such as wealth, power, pleasure, honor or popularity, will make us happy – and they may be able to for short periods of time, but they never seem to satisfy or last.  I think that there is something innate inside of us that seeks something more, something deeper and more meaningful in life.

I would venture to say that what we really want for our children, our spouses and ultimately for ourselves is something more than stringing together a series of spurts of feeling happy.  I think that something more is called joy. Miroslav Volf is a professor at Yale University studying and teaching the Theology of Joy and the Good Life. He describes joy as a deeper or thicker feeling than happiness.  Joy is not dependent on external conditions and is often found more in people that have a profound sense of freedom from those things that don’t satisfy or the addiction to “good feelings.”  

If you think of everyone you have known in your life, which ones do you think have a deep sense of joy in their life and aren’t living on a roller coaster dependent on external factors or how things are going at the moment?   What is it about them that is different?   Do they often have a deep sense of meaning and purpose to their lives?  Do they seem to be creative or continually growing as a person and have profound sense of appreciation?  Do they tend to have a strong sense of community and relationships?  If they lost their material wealth or even a love one, would they still have that sense of joy and peace inside because they believe in something beyond themselves?

My sense is that people that experience that deep sense of joy in their lives have a recognition of who they are and why they are here.  They may experience setbacks in life and even suffering but always see this in the context of what life is really all about.  They know that God is real and is passionately and even recklessly in love with them.  They know that they are the son or daughter of God, made beautifully and with a purpose.  When Jesus took on the flesh of man, one of the most profound things it revealed about God was that he was a community of pure love as one – God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Since we are made in the image of God, this revealed to us who we are, that we were made for love, for relationship and for friendship.  True joy comes only when we give ourselves fully and freely to another and accept them as they truly are,  trusting and allowing them see and love our true self.  In love, we wish what is genuinely good for the other, even when we don’t have the “feelings” of love for them.   It’s easy to love someone that likes us or makes us feel good at the moment but true love is not a feeling but an action on our part to will the best for them and give of ourselves selflessly and unconditionally.  In that act of love - a sincere gift of self, we find ourselves in others and in God and experience true freedom and joy.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. —C.S. Lewis