Where did that line come from? Propaganda from an Orwellian dystopia? Instructions for the inmates of an early 20th century asylum? None of the above.
In reality, that introductory line is a frequent part of my internal monologue.And it’s a concept that nearly everyone in western culture emulates, consciously or unconsciously.
We smile when we pose for pictures.We smile when we greet our friends or meet new people.We smile when we see our bosses or our professors.We smile every time we remember that we ought to be smiling. Because smiling is good, right? Almost everywhere we go, we see smiling faces. From billboards, to magazines, to all manner of advertisements and even to book covers, we are bombarded with smiles.
We’ve created a “Cult of Happiness” under the two key tenants that, one, happiness should always be our ultimate goal and, two, we know what it means to be “happy.”
You might be wondering, “Is he really trying to make a case for happiness being a bad thing?” I’m really not. I love being happy. Everyone does. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem comes when we love happiness a little too much. Sometimes that love causes us to set happiness as our primary goal in everything we do. Sometimes we feel a need to cover or hide from our other feelings, such as anger, sadness or disgust, because they are keeping us from being happy. We tell ourselves that something just out of reach is what we need to make us happy.
Joy is peace and confidence and the ability to trust.
Getting that grade, earning that paycheck, landing that job, getting into that relationship or whatever other goal you can think of is all you need to be “happy.” I say this with confidence because it’s happened to me more times than I care to admit. I meet the goal, check the box and I feel happy. For a while, that is.
But soon I realize that the one thing I gave so much attention to was not the answer to all of my problems. And instead of learning my lesson, I make the same mistake again. I set a new “happiness goal.” And thus a painful cycle is created.
The problem stems from the simple fact that happiness is an emotion. It is not in and of itself a bad thing; it is what allows us to enjoy the good things in our life.But, like any emotion, happiness only lasts for a little while at a time. And yet, so many of us keep seeking a way to make it last forever.
Few people, if any, ever consciously try to do this with any other emotion. None of us want to always be angry or fearful or sad. We see that as weird. But all of those emotions have can have just as much purpose as happiness. Anger help us to recognize and rectify injustice. Fear keeps us from taking unnecessary risks. Sadness helps us understand loss and empathize with the losses of others. And yet, somehow, happiness takes precedence in the minds of so many as the “supreme emotion.”
“But wait,” you might think. “You’re a Christian. Aren’t Christians supposed to be happy?” My succinct and sincere yet incredibly non-reassuring answer to that is, “Not really.” The Bible never explicitly commands us to be happy. Even Jesus, the Perfect Man, wasn’t happy all the time.
But through Jesus, all Christians have something much more valuable than happiness; we have joy. Joy isn’t circumstantially dependent. Joy is peace and confidence and the ability to trust that regardless of what happens, God is working in it for the best. And most critically, joy lasts.
Emotions are natural human qualities given to us by God, who Himself also experiences emotion. All emotions serve a purpose in our lives, and all of them can have a dark side. Any emotion can become a problem if we give it priority. As deeply as they influence us, emotions last for only moments at a time.
Psalm 30:5 says, “For [God’s] anger endureth but a moment; in His favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” The peace, joy and fullness we can experience through Christ can be experienced at any time and is promised to last for all eternity.
If you pass me on the sidewalk, I may not be smiling. I may not have everything together. I may not be happy. But regardless of how I look or feel, it will be a good day.