What is it to be happy? One could argue that it is many things: a state of mind, or perhaps a way of life, or a transient emotion that only comes around when it feels like it. What can be known, however, is that happiness is incidental—it depends on circumstance. This is evident even from America’s supposed Constitutional guarantee of the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Can happiness really be pursued as an end in itself? How could one go about pursuing an emotion? Is it as simple as approaching one’s life with positivity, and then saying, for instance, “I’m happy now, despite the fact that my life is utterly falling apart”?
No, I would argue. The “pursuit of happiness” was included as an inalienable right in the Constitution because it implies that man ought to be free to choose to do things which benefit him in whichever way he prefers. The fact that happiness is contingent on circumstance is therefore a premise of the statement.
In the American mind, the pursuit of happiness is the highest objective. For the sake of achieving perfect happiness much can be excused or neglected. Its pursuit does, after all, undergird the very philosophy of our government. But should happiness, a temporary, contingent thing, be pursued as an end? What about joy? Is joy any different?
The Christian joy is a more rooted, unfettered creature than fleeting happiness. It arises from a yearning for one’s Creator or a knowledge of who He is rather than one’s circumstance, as happiness does. It is defined by and directed at the Lord. The Psalms show this:
I will sing praises to You with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to You; my soul also, which you have redeemed (Psalm 71:22b-23);
You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
This joy is a beautiful thing. It adumbrates the very person and being of our Lord, and indeed brings us great pleasure, like happiness. Should joy, then, be the objective of our lives?
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I struggled to be happy—and moreover, to know joy—earlier this year. Of course, I was busy, so some level of exhaustion would have been reasonable, but I became unreasonably lethargic and sybaritic. Some days, I dragged myself out of bed after laying there for a long while, and looked listlessly out of the windows of my apartment, aching to let the wind carry me elsewhere: to a world in which I could have all the wide open space and rich air and simplicity that I coveted, free from the city that imprisoned me. Worst of all, conversations about the ever-present COVID-19 and how I ought or ought not to be acting in regard to the pandemic regularly threw me into a furious spiral of contempt and wild anguish.
On my walks in the cemetery, I moved slowly around the perimeter, heaving sighs and asking God why things were so painful and confusing. Why, I wondered, had my Lord allowed me to go to college, where I was so miserable? Why couldn’t I simply have the place and the peace that I wanted so that I could be happy and rejoice at His faithfulness? Why was I suddenly uncertain of what His character was?
It felt as though the very shape of things was slowly being distorted, and the matters I had once known and loved, like reading and talking about my faith, slowly lost their lustre. I flipped a page and blinked with indifference; I listened to friends tell wonderful stories about God’s hand in their lives and avoided sharing my own, as I could barely see His hand in mine.
Clearly, I was unhappy, but what’s more, I yearned to be full of a joy that just wasn’t there, and grew frustrated that I couldn’t muster up the strength to delight in my trials.
Despite this, there were moments of brief ephemeral joy, usually in the cemetery, in laughter with my lovely suite-mates, or in my home when visiting. A certain stirring in my deepest being flickered in and out of life in such moments, and I caught glimpses of the One I was missing.
I couldn’t resist these glimmers, and He drew me back to Him. My Father has brought me such joy these past few months, though I am busier than ever. I’ve learned that He is what I truly yearned for this year; He is who I neglected.
Oh my Lord Jesus, thank You. Thank You for Your great sweetness, and for imbuing my life with beauty and joy that is so rich and full of Your life and truth.
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Joy reveals our Creator, and it is indeed truly captivating. One could argue that it is different from and better than happiness, and that it therefore deserves our undivided attention. It isn’t, or it ought not to be, however, the central ambition of our lives.
The foundational Christian ambition is instead the pursuit of God, who will inevitably lead one into joy. C.S. Lewis says in his memoir Surprised by Joy: “[I had been] wrong in supposing that I desired joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring”. He eventually concluded that this something desired was God.
Happiness is fleeting and small, and while joy is everlasting and immense, it would also be empty—in fact, it would not be itself—were it not for its desired, God.
I pray that this semester is fruitful and worthwhile for you, but above all, I hope that you know joy deeply, not because I think joy is the aim, but because I know that it will lead you to your radiant Savior and spring fully formed from His presence.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name…”
 Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 269, emphasis supplied.