Happiness is Overrated

Everyone wants to be happy. I’m no different than anyone else is this regard; when the happy times show up, I instinctively want to make them last as long as possible. The difficulty comes in learning that none of us has the ability to “lock it down” once it arrives. Oftentimes I instinctively seek to recreate the magic of that particular summer evening by the fire…or the random walk in the neighborhood that led unexpectedly to that sense of happiness…nearly always in vain do I attempt to duplicate those moments.

Happiness, in a word, is fleeting. In attempting to set our sights directly on happiness, it scurries away to the periphery of our vision. It’s much like grasping at smoke. Happiness can be wonderful whenever it occurs, but our attempts to bottle it are mercifully futile.

I say “mercifully futile” because, as fallen human beings, if we could bottle happiness, we would. God has been merciful to us in denying the ability to manufacture and market happiness – though God also knows we will try our hardest to circumvent this inability! We look for happiness in all manner of dry wells (Jeremiah 2:13) and then bitterly cry out to the Lord when the wells we dig do not yield the glee-apart-from-God we were hoping for.

Choose Joy by Kay Warren


A few weeks ago, my wife Shelly and I began reading Kay Warren’s book, Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough, just before bedtime. Kay is the wife of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and founding pastor of Saddleback Church in California. Together, this couple has walked through a mountain of grief and suffering, most notably the recent suicide of their adult son Matthew. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that Kay Warren is also a cancer survivor.

In my experience, people who ardently pursue happiness are generally more miserable than not. They live for those good times, whether that’s a weekend down at the lake, that elusive new car smell or smoking meth. Because their lives are so tightly focused on the pursuit of these moments of manmade happiness, the rest of their lives is often judged as boring, mundane, indescribably mediocre. We dread everyday graces and hope for the moment when we can race our car 100 m.p.h. while simultaneously rocking out the stereo and tossing back a few Bloody Mary’s with a carful of party animals.

Settled and confident joy, by comparison, seems lame.

While happiness spills out of those happy moments we work so hard to create, joy is altogether different. Joy grows out of a solid understanding of who we are and Who God is. Joy stands resolutely strong in the face of changing circumstances. Joy anchors us in ways we would value if we really understood it, but happiness is what we tend to chase after.

Believe me, I get it. I used to be the guy at the wheel of The Nonstop Party Barge. Nothing was off-limits, no place too sinful to visit, nothing too toxic to put into my blood stream. Loud, wild and outrageous seemed to be the leading indicators of the presence of fun. Life did seem pretty full of happiness during those raucous events, but when I woke up the next day and had to go to work, the “misery” of mundane everyday life returned.

Defined in this manner, it seems that Jesus is not much interested in our happiness. After all, he’s the guy who walks in and lays down a bunch of rules for us to follow, right? If we even pay Him lip service, we have to enter into the long, arduous task of being “obedient” (another word we don’t much like). We take inventory of our lives, look back at Jesus and ask the question, “OK, are there any fun things I can still hang onto?”

In so thinking, we’ve missed it entirely.

Jesus found joy compelling enough to allow Himself to be brutally scourged and crucified. Jesus found joy in laying aside His rights as God and giving Himself over to the wickedness of sinful people. Apparently, joy (as opposed to happiness) is so valuable and essential to human flourishing that the One Who created everything was willing to set it all down and suffer horribly for our confident joy (Hebrews 12:2).

As just one example, Kay Warren notes that women in our culture tend to be driven by a powerful desire to look (and remain) attractive. There is nothing at all wrong with a legitimate desire to look as good as one is able, but when one’s sense of happiness is attached to how good you look, you’re moving into a dangerous zone. For instance, happiness might evaporate when we lose all of our hair during chemotherapy. “How can I possibly be happy as a bald woman, when I feel ashamed and unattractive this way?” we ask incredulously. The presence of joy, however, recognizes the absurd humor when a gust of wind lifts a wig off someone’s head and blows it around in the Saddleback Church parking lot. Our place in God’s creation secure, we are joyfully emboldened to follow Kay Warren’s example and chase the wig around the lot, laughing at the craziness of it all and how it must appear to random passers-by.

Personally, what’s been most interesting to me in all of this “Happiness or Joy?” discussion is the delightful discovery that Jesus would likely call that a false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other. Yes, setting aside the pursuit of our own happiness will cost us something. It always does. But it has been my great surprise to find out that Jesus is so unbelievably generous with us that whenever we set aside our own selfish definitions of happiness, and instead pursue His kingdom and His righteousness, He adds to it everything else we sought in dry wells (Matthew 6:33).

Eternal joy? Got it!

Existential happiness? Oh, umm…wow! Got that, too.

Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right, and the determined choice to praise God in all things.
Kay Warren
Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn’t Enough

Psalm 139:1-6 (ESV)
“Search Me, O God, and Know My Heart”
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.

Jeremiah 29:11-13
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.

Romans 8:28
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose.

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