Seek Happiness, Not Just Joy

by Don McMinn

Compared to joy, happiness has gotten a bad reputation. Particularly among Christians. 

In the recent past (30-40 years) we have been taught that there is a significant difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a temporary emotion; joy is an abiding attitude. Christians have joy; the “world” is relegated to mere happiness. In a nicely written article, author Randy Alcorn debunks this misunderstanding. He makes it clear that, biblically, there is no difference between joy and happiness. Click here for the article.

But for a moment, let’s explore the premise that joy may be deeper and more enduring and happiness is short-lived and momentary. Okay; what’s wrong with that? They both sound good to me.

I value, even pursue, moments of happiness.

  • Several months ago I shared a meal with 27 friends in a restaurant in Helsinki. We talked, laughed, and ate reindeer tongue. To this day, I pause and smile when I reminisce about that time.
  • My wife and I walked, slowly and uncovered, through a pouring rain in New Orleans until we were soaked to the bone. What a wonderful moment.
  • I am happy when holding my hands around a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning.
  • When my grandson falls asleep on my chest and his breathing syncs with mine, it is a fleeting but transcendent moment.

If you seldom have “happy moments” you might not be looking for them. In 2006 Stanford professor Arnold Zwicky coined the phrase “frequency illusion” to describe this syndrome. It’s caused, he wrote, by two psychological processes. The first, selective attention, kicks in when you’re struck by a new word, thing, or idea; after that, you subconsciously keep an eye out for it, and as a result find it surprisingly often. The second process, confirmation bias, reassures you that each sighting is further proof of your impression that the thing has gained overnight omnipresence.

We can use this phenomenon to our advantage. Since we tend to notice that which we look for, let’s choose what we look for.

For instance:

  • We are surrounded by innumerable reasons to be grateful—life, freedom, friends—but we’ll remain unaware, and perhaps ungrateful, unless we look for them.
  • We are encompassed by beauty—nature, children, music, books—but often don’t recognize it.
  • God is at work in our lives but we may not recognize His activity because we’re looking elsewhere.

A story is told of a monk who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff. The tiger snarls with hunger and pursues the monk whose only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the monk dangles from the cliff, a mouse begins to gnaw on the vine. If he climbs back up, the tiger will devour him; if he remains clutching the vine he faces the certain death of a long fall onto jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the monk notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry, eats it, and says, “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”

At the core of my being, I do want to possess a steady and enduring sense of peace, contentment, and hope—perhaps we can call it, joy. But I also value moments of relief from the unrelenting stress and pressure of life—perhaps we can call it, happiness.

Let’s embrace both.

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