Since mid-March, I’ve had a number of people come to me with the lament that they find it difficult to be happy in the midst of the world’s goings-on. They share with me sadness at being physically distant from friends and loved ones, disappointment that long-laid plans and important schedules are upended, and anxiety about the future of their livelihood and even health. In the face of it all, they say, happiness is hard to maintain.
Sadness, disappointment, and anxiety are entirely appropriate emotional responses to our present world, and either alone or in combination they can, indeed, crowd out happiness. That said, I’ve long believed that happiness is a superficial and fleeting emotion in any case, and often happiness is a palliative that serves to mask rather than alleviate those other emotional responses. Happiness is not unlike the laughing gas one receives at the dentist’s office. It may momentarily take one’s mind off the pain, but it wears off quickly. Please don’t misunderstand; I love to be happy, but I don’t put a lot of stock in happiness’ sustainability.
Much more sustaining and sustainable than happiness is joy. Joy is so different from happiness that I would not even call joy an emotion. I would call joy, rather, a posture of the soul. Happiness and sorrow are mutually exclusive, but joy and sorrow are not. I have encountered many grieving families, for instance, whose pain and sorrow at the death of their loved one exists alongside a robust joy for the life they shared. Indeed, I have encountered the same juxtaposition in dying people themselves, who are sad that their mortal lives are nearing an end and overwhelmingly, almost uncontainedly joyous with gratitude for the life they’ve lived.
Whereas happiness is superficial and fleeting, joy finds its deep and abiding source in God. Joy characterized the life of Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus shows anger, sorrow, and even irritation and impatience, but he is always also joyful. Joy is the awareness that God’s world is, and has been since the first day of creation, good. Joy is the recognition that, no matter what may transpire today, God’s gift of grace — that we are created and accepted by a love that nothing can diminish — is constant. In these days, it is, indeed, difficult to maintain happiness; but even in the midst of sorrow, disappointment, and anxiety, we can be joyful. Indeed, joy can buoy us through such challenging emotions. Joy sees us through whatever today or tomorrow will bring.
Louis Armstrong’s classic “What a Wonderful World” is, for me, the popular song that best epitomizes joy. I hope the video above this meditation helps you connect to your joy today. Blessings to you, friends; take joy in the sure knowledge of God’s love!