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A young girl amidst sunflowers reaching for sunlight, embodying joy vs happiness.

The Enduring Nature of Joy

Should we always be ‘happy?’ A close look at the doctrine indicates that ‘joy’ is what provides enduring peace.

Recently, while I was thinking about how we might find some measure of safety and peace or happiness in an increasingly troubled and troubling world—a world that seems to be spinning more out of moral and spiritual control with each passing day—I found myself noticing bumper stickers. Yes, that’s right, bumper stickers. In the past week, I have seen bumper stickers proclaiming all sorts of odd things about happiness. One I saw stated that “Happiness is being married,” while another one I saw only moments later countered that “Happiness is being single.” Yesterday, I saw a sticker that told me I should just “Choose Happiness,” while another proclaimed that “Happiness happens!” And, of course, there was the always reliable bumper sticker advice to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Others that I have seen lately indicated that true happiness in life is to be found in everything from a fast car to fresh bacon to a warm puppy or even, oddly, a warm gun. I even saw one particularly cynical sticker claiming that “Happiness is impossible!”

Now, despite what the obviously miserable chap whose car was sporting that depressing bumper sticker might have had to say about the matter, the statement is obviously untrue. For most people, happiness is not only possible but is actually quite common. The trouble with happiness is not that it is impossible but that it is fickle, shallow, and fleeting. As the word itself implies, happiness is a matter of happenstance, chance happenings, luck, and fortune. If circumstances are favorable, you are happy; if not, then you’re unhappy. 

Unfortunately, one of the great misunderstandings we sometimes have as Latter-day Saints is believing that we are supposed to be happy all the time. After all, some would say, we have a “gospel of happiness,” and so we know how to live “after the manner of happiness,” therefore we should be happy from dawn until dusk—and, maybe, even in our dreams. However, while I am no cynic, and I like being happy every bit as much as the next person, I firmly believe this view to be mistaken. It stems, I would argue, from confusion about the meaning of the words happiness and joy, particularly as those terms are used in scripture. The two terms have become so fully confused and conflated in our contemporary usage that they now tend to be thought of as synonyms, and their profoundly important differences are seldom distinguished. In this short, two-part essay, however, I’m going to spend some time discussing those differences and explaining why it is so very important that we pay careful attention to them.

Conflating the Gospel with False Positivity

I recently had a student in one of my classes who was serving as the Relief Society President in her ward and had been for some time. In fact, this was not her first time around being Relief Society President in that ward. With one of her sons going through a messy divorce because of his infidelity and pornography problems, another looking at a prison term for a drunk driving conviction that resulted in another person’s death, her own mother succumbing to the slow and steady ravages of dementia, and her husband in almost constant pain due to a terrifying and irreversible illness, she was deeply depressed, very fearful and anxious. Her tears flowed freely, perhaps for the first time in a long time, as she shared with me her circumstances and her difficulties. My heart ached for her sadness and pain and the mountain of burdens she was being called upon to carry.

Happiness is a matter of happenstance.

Interestingly, she had never told a soul in her ward about how she felt. Instead, she expended all her energy, putting on a cheery, optimistic façade because she thought that revealing her sadness and worries, much less their profound depth, might lead people to believe she lacked faith or did not have a firm testimony. Latter-day Saints, she believed, are not supposed to be depressed, are not supposed to be sad, or question God. They’re just supposed to be happy and cheerful and optimistic everywhere, all the time. Heck, even the pioneer children were singing as they walked, and walked, and walked, she said. Thus, in her mind, really faithful Latter-day Saints don’t even have grumpy children!

This dear Sister’s mindset, however, was just not scriptural—despite the fact that it seems to be a view commonly shared among many members of the Church. The scriptures do not teach that happiness is just a matter of positive thinking, that it is the sure sign of personal righteousness and God’s good favor, or that to be happy, you only need to “turn that frown upside down”—or, as Bobby McFerrin cheerfully sang, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Rather, scripture teaches, “Fear not … in me, your joy is full” and, again, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” Now, to our modern ears, this all may sound like a distinction without much of a difference, but in truth, there is a world of difference between happiness and joy.

Distinguishing Between Happiness and Joy

Just as we have two different words—happiness and joy—so did the ancient Greeks, in whose language the New Testament was written. The Greek word translated as “happy” in the KJV New Testament is makarios (μακάριος). Interestingly, this word is only translated as “happy” five times, whereas it is translated as “blessed” about forty-four times. The word refers to the fortunate circumstances and freedom enjoyed by the wealthy and healthy and famous, whose good fortune allows them to avoid, or at least mitigate, many of the normal burdens and worries of daily living. It is, thus, a word that is meant to describe the lucky soul who has been blessed with money, health, good looks, power and ease, and other things of that sort. Indeed, in Ancient Greece, makarios typically referred to the lot of the elite of society, the powerful, the rich, the famous, and beautiful. It was typically thought to be the result of right living; in that, if you lived right, then you would receive earthly goods, prestige, and status, as well as material things: an obedient wife, many strong and talented children, a good harvest, a spacious and envied home, and so on. Clearly, however, even though the word the King James translators employed for makarios was “blessed,” in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking to something quite different than the pagan conception of good luck and justly deserved fortune.

There is a world of difference between happiness and joy.

Our modern English word “happiness,” at least in the way we typically use and understand it, is more or less equivalent to the Greek concept of makarios. If I am happy, it is because things are going well for me—my outward circumstances are good by virtue of happenstance, happenings, chance, or luck. There are no crises in my life, I feel good, there’s money in the bank, nobody is out to get me, my job is going well, my wife just surprised me with freshly baked cookies, my favorite hockey team just won a close game, and so on. All these sorts of things combine to make me happy. However, when those things start to change, I do not remain happy. When the IRS comes around for an audit, or your roof starts leaking, or your car gets totaled, or your wife finds out she has cancer, or you lose out on a well-deserved promotion, or your team gives up a last-minute goal and loses the game … well, then, happiness flies right out the window and is usually replaced with anger, sadness, disappointment, frustration, resentment, or just plain old grumpiness.

A child playing in the rain captures the spontaneous joy, illustrating how it is different than happiness.
Finding the joy in life’s ‘puddles.’

Interestingly, despite what we sometimes think, there is no direct commandment in scripture for us to always be happy. We are, of course, told on many occasions to be of good cheer. For example, Jesus tells His apostles to “be of good cheer; for I have overcome the world.” However, here the Greek word does not mean for us to be “cheery.” Rather, the Greek word is tharseo (θαρσέω), and it means “to take courage.” This makes a bit more sense given that the Lord was letting His apostles know that very shortly they were going to be facing a great many trials and tribulations, but that they should take courage because He had overcome the world for them. He was teaching them that in Him, they could find the hope and strength necessary to endure to the end, to persevere in the face of what was going to prove to be tremendous adversity.

Even the Savior himself was not always happy.

A careful reading of scripture shows that even the Savior himself was not always happy. We see, for example, His indignation at the money changers debasing the temple with their self-serving commerce, His weeping with Mary and Martha at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, His anger and grief over the hardness of the hearts of those in the synagogue who claimed it was a sin to heal on the Sabbath. In Gethsemane, Jesus sweated great drops of blood and pled of the Father that the bitter cup might be taken from Him, confessing to His disciples, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” and inviting them to “tarry ye here, and watch with me.” Even after His glorious resurrection, during His appearance to the Nephites gathered at the temple in Bountiful, we read that He “groaned within himself” as He prayed to the Father, “troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel.”

No, in scripture we are not faced with a jovial Jesus who is always perky, cheerfully going about His work whistling a happy tune. What we do find in scripture is a Jesus who promises peace and comfort—or, in other words, joy. The Greek word most often translated as joy in the New Testament is chara (χαρά), a term understood to convey the meaning of “contentment or comfort that comes from deep understanding,” the “mood of a soul at peace,” and as “calm delight.” In this sense, then, joy is not an emotional state as is happiness, something that comes and goes as circumstances change. Rather, joy (chara) is more like a mode of being, a way of living and responding to life informed by the comforting assurance that however things might be going at the moment, in the end, things will always turn out alright and for the good, if only because the Son of God Himself has promised it will be so. Joy and the comforting peace it brings come as the culmination of a life spent moving forward, even in the face of adversity, injustice, and pain. It distills upon the soul as a gift born of faith and patience. Unlike happiness or pleasure, joy cannot be purchased on the cheap. 

It is worth also noting that while the opposite of happiness is sadness, the opposite of joy is not sorrow but fear. Perhaps this sheds some important light on the angel’s announcement to the shepherds at the birth of Christ: “Fear not:  for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Similarly, we read in the scriptures, “Wherefore, fear not even unto death; for in this world your joy is not full, but in me your joy is full.”

The experience of joy exceeds our immediate circumstances.

While happiness is clearly that wonderfully pleasant feeling that comes when things are going your way, joy is a gift that comes in through an intimate relationship with God. It grounds us in our everyday moments, in our triumphs, and is a powerful gift from a loving Heavenly Father that preserves us in the midst of pain and suffering. However, this gift can only come as we put our lives and our pain and suffering into His hands, trusting that He will know what is best for us in every instance.

The Power of Joy

Joy is, in this way, freedom from fear and doubt. And, while in happiness there is no fear, it is because, in happiness, everything is going as we want it to go (whether what we want happens to be selfish or not—happiness makes no distinction). Joy, on the other hand, resists fear because it is born of our confident trust in a God who is always able to turn suffering to an eternal purpose, to endow our lives and our tragedies with meaning. Joy replaces fear as we realize that no matter our situation, no matter our challenges, no matter our pain, we are never alone or forgotten. Indeed, in joy we understand that whatever suffering we might be facing not only has purpose, but we truly desire to participate with God as He brings it about in our lives and the lives of others.

Even the Savior himself was not always happy.[/perfectpullquote]One way of seeing all of this is to realize that while the emotion of happiness depends on our current situation, the experience of joy exceeds our immediate circumstances—it persists in spite of whatever situation we might find ourselves in from moment to moment. Interestingly, while there is no fear in the immediate experience of it, happiness is nonetheless fragile and always haunted by the specter of fear —the fear of loss or failure, the fear that some unanticipated and uncontrollable calamity could strike at any moment and bring ruin to our happiness.

With joy, however, the things we might otherwise have reason to fear are in joy known as possibilities for growth, deepened faith and understanding, and, ultimately, salvation, at least insofar as we place our trust in a loving and all-powerful God. One cannot help but be reminded of the words, echoing the prophet Isaiah, the beloved hymn How Firm a Foundation:

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

In joy, fear loses its power and the hold the Adversary seeks to exert over us weakens as we are made free to be in relationship with the God who created us in love to be in relationship with Him. Recall Father Lehi’s message to his son Jacob: “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” In the final analysis, this is what the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Savior are really all about. Joy is that stillness that comes when we know who we are, what really matters in life, and in whom we can always trust. “Be still,” we read in the Psalms, “and know that I am God.”

In the second half of this brief meditation on happiness and joy, I will explore some of the teachings of the Apostle Paul that I believe have particular relevance to us today, especially as we strive to understand the love of God and the meaning of suffering.

About the author

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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