Sunday, June 26, 2011

Joy and Happiness

This morning in Church we had a sermon on the difference between "joy" and "happiness." Let me start out by saying that I believe in the basic message that was preached today, which is that we don't want to settle for a momentary happiness that is dependent on our circumstances, but we want a lasting and enduring joy that flows up from within and remains throughout all circumstances we may face in life.

That being said, I have to say that for some time now I have found this distinction between "joy" and "happiness" (very common in many churches) is at best unnecessary and sometimes rather deconstructive to our thinking, and I wanted to lay out some thoughts about it which have troubled me.

First of all, I would argue, many non-religious people in the US might use the term happiness to describe something like what Christians mean by "joy." When people say that they "just want to be happy," I think most of them are talking about a deep satisfaction, inner peace, fulfillment and overall good feeling, which lasts throughout all of life's circumstances." Christians, as far as I can understand, call this "joy", and often differentiate it from "happiness." Non-religious types might call it "true happiness" or possibly "lasting happiness." There may be some who mean by "I just want to be happy" that they only want to fulfill their momentary desires and feel a continual rush of positive emotion based on some exciting experience or other, but I do not think this is what most people mean. I think almost everyone is looking for something lasting, enduring. Thus, when we try to make a distinction, it is worthy of note that the rest of the world is shaking their heads, wondering what we're talking about.

Secondly, the distinction between happiness and joy can lead to some critical judgments against people who are actually looking for the same thing we are. Some Christians can look with scorn on those who are looking for "happiness" as if they're willing to settle for something less wonderful and desirable. Now if they accepted the same distinction, then that would be true, but since they don't, they sometimes end up getting criticized for a semantic issue, which does no good to anyone. Now many may not openly or even consciously think that way, but feelings of superiority tend to set in regardless over a willingness to forsake personal happiness and live in squalor, poverty, and abjection, all along claiming a deep and lasting joy that is so different from what the world thinks of as happiness. Now this is really just an extension of what is a normal pitfall in the faith (pride in one's own faith), but I do think the belief in the distinction heightens its danger.

Now let us return to the actual semantic discussion. Happiness, I think people pretty much understand. We get this feeling of satisfaction. We smile. We laugh. We're excited. Maybe we're crying because it is an experience of emotion that can override our inhibitions if it is strong enough. In the church, people tend to connect this idea with circumstantial happiness. It tends to happen momentarily and only in response to certain circumstances. When alternate, less desirable circumstances come along, the feeling disappears and another replaces it. And so we have pastors preaching from the pulpit about the nature of "happiness" being momentary, fleeting, and completely dependent on circumstances.

Then we get to "joy," a quality that quickly becomes vague, nebulous, and indefinite. From the pulpit, pastors teach that it is something deeper and not dependent on circumstances, and that no matter what is happening around you, it can be accessed and remain, despite difficulty and hardship. I laud the teaching that we should begin to attain this kind of quality, but in making it different and distinct, separate from the feeling of happiness, I find myself confused as to its actual definition and often wonder how people know if they really have it or not.

When I ask people these questions, I don't seem to get straight answers. Is joy a feeling? Well, lots of Christians seem to think no (for the aforementioned reasons about the fleeting nature of feelings like happiness). And yet, when I insist that in order to experience joy, if must at some point be felt, most Christians seem to agree. If it can be felt, then is the feeling really a different feeling from happiness, or is it truly the same feeling, only deeper or more profound. If it is not a feeling, then what is it? Is it an attitude? If so, why don't we just call it a good attitude? Is it a disposition? If so... what does that mean? I cannot seem to get a straight or definitive answer about what it actually is. And if it is a feeling or even if it is something else but you can still somehow feel it, then is it a different sort of feeling than mere happiness, and how so? If it is a lasting, enduring feeling, then can you stop feeling it? If it is something else, that goes on even while we're feeling grumpy, pissed off, anxious, or bitter, then what good is it? Is it just a belief about life that has no impact on how we feel? If it doesn't have an impact on how we feel in the moment, then is it really a belief and is it really doing any good. To me, it all seems rather nebulous. And I think this is why non-religious people wonder what the heck we're talking about when we mention joy as if it is something other than happiness, because we can't seem to tell them what it is or what it feels like.

So then, what's the point of making this distinction. I believe the point is one that can easily be made without making the distinction between the two words. Namely, that instead of looking for lasting happiness in short-term circumstances, we should root ourselves and our minds in Christ and find enduring, lasting happiness, born of an attitude of trust and hope and love and shining through every experience of hardship, loss, or pain. It means we turn our difficulties into challenges, our sorrows into smiles, and our losses into opportunities, and all of this involves what I think is the feeling that the rest of the world identifies as "happiness," only deeper, more meaningful and long lasting.