Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of ... JOY!

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So we want to Live Happy, but how do we do that? We've learned that getting more and more stuff doesn't do it. We also know that when we suffer poverty, sickness, or abandonment, we aren't happy. So perhaps we need to be pursuing something else.

”You have a right to be happy!”

She said the words with the utmost compassion, her head tilted and her eyes brimming with tears. The other woman, distraught, drank the words in deeply as she closed her eyes and nodded.

I had no place in this conversation. I was a stranger sitting at the next table in the small coffee shop. But then, who bares their soul within listening range of strangers? To broadcast personal ills so others can hear is an invitation for interruption.

So I did.

“Excuse me. I'm sorry. I don't know your situation, but I would like you to think about the possibility that happiness is not the end goal of life. It's not the most important thing.”

The daggers in their eyes told me the conversation was over. And yes, I was too nosy. I excused myself and drank my coffee in my car. I prayed that God would do the rest.

Happiness Is Not a Christian Imperative

We've all been in similar conversations, where happiness is used as the ultimate trump card. We are thrust into a quandary of comparing right versus happy, facts versus feeling, and good versus feel good. We ask, “Who wants misery? Who wants unhappiness?” It's a tough line of reasoning to fight. But there is another question we need to ask: “Are there higher goals than personal happiness?”

The framers included a right to “pursue happiness” along with “life and liberty” in the Declaration of Independence. But because it's in an American document doesn't mean it's a Christian imperative. We shouldn't confuse the two.

Arthur Schlesinger Sr. observes that “pursuit” had a particular meaning at the time of the Declaration. Often in the context of vocation, men would take up the “pursuit” of medicine or law or theology. It was a practice, a life lived.

So a pursuit of happiness in the original intent would never find meaning in a shopping mall or a relationship or a new smartphone. Happiness is a life lived with purpose and meaning.

We sometimes act like happiness is a right. We have invoked its mandate to justify divorce, infidelity, job abandonment, purchases we do not need, indulgence at the buffet line of life, and all sorts of rash decisions.

In my life, I've used happiness to justify my own selfishness. In the end, I've still been left wanting.

Does “More and More” Make Us Happy?

Princeton University released a study that pegged the magic elixir of compensation at $75,000. That was the emotional tipping point for many workers. “The lower a person's annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels.” But the study interviewed people making more than that threshold and found that “no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don't report any greater degree of happiness.”

We’ve been trained to believe that the more we make, the happier we’ll become. The perception doesn’t match the reality.

Intuitively we know all of this, and still, we join the rat race.

Alexander the Great conquered the known world in his day. Having done so, he wept, because, he said, “There are no more worlds to conquer.”

Joy Is the Better Pursuit

Scripture doesn't talk much about happiness. Instead, we are called to a different kind of pursuit—joy.

The Bible uses terms like “joy indescribable and filled with glory” and it says things like “count it all joy when you encounter various trials.” Paul describes early believers as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

Joy is a deep pleasure that can still be found in poverty, sickness, or abandonment. It can reach through the darkest night, the saddest soul, the weakest body. It doesn't depend on circumstance but on the position of the heart.

Admittedly, joy isn't easy to conceptualize. It doesn't have a defined set of parameters. It doesn't always have a beginning and isn't supposed to have an end. It can't be bottled or framed.

It joins other divine mysteries like love and faith and eternity. Frederick Buechner says, “Joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes.”

Joy is found not in pampering our soul but in pleasing our Creator. And in turn, we are given a richness of life that is satisfying.

It defies expectations. It shocks the system. It disrupts the culture.

And I will gladly cede this “right” to happiness and instead wait for joy.