With Thanksgiving coming up this weekend, I’ve been a little more conscious of what I feel thankful for and ways that gratitude have entered my life. I came across a fantastic quotation this morning by Adela Rogers St. John about the distinction between joy and happiness. “Joy seems to me a step beyond happiness. Happiness is a sort of atmosphere you can live in sometimes when you’re lucky. Joy is a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.” After reading that, I was dumbstruck at the realization that maybe I’d been going about this all wrong.
Like most people I know, I’m a happiness chaser. I often define my mood by how happy I am. I’m also guilty of happiness forecasting when I say things like: “I’ll be so happy when I get the latest iPhone.” or “If I can just make it to the weekend, I’ll be so happy.” The irony is that, as a society, we are terrible at predicting future happiness. I’m sure many of you have thought how much money you’ll need to retire, and what you’ll need to live happily. If you’re anything like me, when I finally get to that projected date, I rarely achieve the happiness that I’d built up in my mind, and I’m just as likely to be bloody miserable. Before coming across that quotation this morning, I’d never really asked myself why?
If we define happiness as reliant on external things, be they money, free time, consumer goods, or even status, we lay ourselves open to equating our general sense of well being to fluctuating circumstances and unsustainable satiation. Instead of chasing happiness all my life, I should be nurturing the much more sustainable feeling of joy. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown cites the Methodist pastor Anne Robertson’s definitions of “joy” and “happiness”. “The Greek word for “happiness” is makarious, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries… Robertson compares this to the Greek word for “joy” which is chairo… the culmination of being and the good mood of the soul.”
This was an eye-popping distinction for me because it means that I don’t have to be happy all the time to live a joyful life. As a matter of fact, unlike happiness, which waxes and wanes, joy can be a constant in my life if I make a conscious practice of tending to my soul. I’ve been witnessing this over the past few months as I am trying to incorporate gratitude, trust, vulnerability, and authenticity into my interactions with others and in my own self-evaluation. As an example of this, I could mention last evening when my wife and I were facilitating a Partners’ Group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their partners. Sitting around the discussion group hearing 18 people share their pain in the rawest, most authentic way possible, I was definitely not feeling happiness, but I was filled with joy. Simply being present and connecting through compassion brought something to my heart that happiness chasing would never come close to touching. Realizing how honored I am to make authentic connections with people has made me intensely grateful all day. When I sit down to my Thanksgiving meal this weekend surrounded by the people I love most in this world, I will truly be “thankful” for a new-found awakening that my goal in life is no longer a desire to be happy, but rather to invite joyfulness into my life by embracing sufficiency not desire, and vulnerability not fear.
I wish you all a most “joyous” Thanksgiving, and the hope that one day we will all believe that each one of us is worthy of love.