It is important to know the difference between being happy and having joy.
Sheryl Crow famously wrote in a song, “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?” Crow apparently could discern that being happy isn’t always what is best for us.
That is because happiness is an emotion in which we “experience feelings ranging from contentment and satisfaction to bliss and intense pleasure,” whereas joy “is a stronger, less common feeling than happiness.” We experience joy when we achieve selflessness to the point of personal sacrifice. We feel joy when we are spiritually connected to God or people.
Crow knows there are plenty of things in this world we can do that might allow us to feel bliss or pleasure, but ultimately they leave us feeling empty. Ironically, the apostle Paul knew this as well. In Galatians 5:19, Paul actually lists some of these things: “Sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealously, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like.” If you didn’t know it already, the Bible is pretty specific about these kinds of things.
A little bit later in that same verse, though, Paul tells us that if we walk in the ways of God then we will experience joy and other feelings as well: love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul is not implying that happiness is all bad. We may feel happy as a result of any number of things that are not wrong morally. But the larger point is that happiness, as a feeling, is not predicated on something necessarily being good for us.
Joy, on the other hand, is at least grounded in the idea that something is good for someone else. We have joy when — even in our suffering — we are acting toward someone else’s well-being. If you have ever selflessly given of yourself or that which you own you are certainly familiar with this feeling.
This also explains verses in the Bible that might initially seem difficult to understand without this distinction between joy and happiness. For instance, Hebrews 12:2 makes a lot more sense in this context. It reads: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.”
All this might cause us to consider what motivates us in life. If all of our efforts are focused on trying to be happy — I think that we may be missing the point. But if our purpose is to have joy in our lives then we have committed to one another in a way that seeks something better than simple self-satisfaction.
So let me posit a question: What are you doing in the world that is causing you joy? If you can’t answer that question currently, be assured that there is still good news. You still have time to leave the hell despair behind.
So put yourself out there and do something good for someone else — and feel what happens. This is joy. And once you feel it, you will know hope, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And it is in those feelings, that you will come to know God.