Tis the season for joy. In our best-loved Christmas hymns, the angels announce the birth of Jesus with glad tidings of great joy. In reply and echoing their joyous strains, we sing lustily and with good courage that God has sent joy to the world. Even the fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains cannot contain themselves, as God’s creation repeats the sounding joy. The Lord has come. The savior reigns. Sin and sorrow are banished, and his blessings flow to the ends of the earth far as the curse is found.
Adding to joy, the hymns remind us of the angels’ adoration, the gift of the father, gladness, glory, the holy night, light divine, love eternal, heavenly rest, peace on earth, and the wonders of his love. In response, we rejoice with heart and soul, and voice.
Happiness, however, is nowhere to be found.
We often use happiness and joy interchangeably. Both are positive emotions, and both bring pleasure. Even most psychologists don’t differentiate between the two. But there are good reasons why happiness never shows up in our favorite Christmas hymns. Think back on moments of happiness and what it means to shed tears of joy. Our bodies can feel the difference. Happiness is the lighter of the two emotions. In fact, happiness for its own sake is pretty thin. It is the type of happiness we refer to as hedonism, and psychological studies have shown little benefit to well-being.1 On the other hand, happiness that occurs through purposeful living has more heft. It’s what Aristotle referred to as “eudemonia” in his Nicomachean Ethics and plays a vital role in well-being. Thomas Jefferson had this in mind when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we each have the inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But joy runs deeper. That’s because joy combines happiness with sadness, whether it be hardship, sorrow, heartbreak, or grief. Joy is the feeling that comes with conquering what seemed to be unconquerable, attaining the unattainable, and overcoming what was thought to be overwhelming. In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote that joy “might almost equally be called a kind of unhappiness or grief.”2 Danish social psychologist Janis Zickfield and his colleagues identified different types of joyful tears, finding that such tears often tie together a past hardship with current happiness.3 In psalm 30:5, we read, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” I think we often read into that verse that if we are resilient and wait out our sadness, joy will come our way.” But I think a better way to read it is that our weeping, when redeemed for God’s good purposes, leads to joy. Jesus explicitly connects the two in John, chapter 16:20, saying, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” In many Christmas hymns, the composers juxtapose the joyful birth of Jesus with sin.
But in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in;
O may we not by sinning despise your lowly birth;
No more let sin and sorrow grow;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
These lines remind us that celebrating Jesus’s birth is not just about cooing over a precious newborn. We sing joyfully because his birth reminds us of how terrible it would have been if he was never born. The thin gruel of happiness without sorrow is akin to celebrating Christmas without its Easter purposes.
Joy is more profound for another reason; it brings the past, present, and future together. Happiness has a fleeting aspect to it. We are happy with something for a short time but then move on. In psychology, we call this the hedonic treadmill. Happiness never completely satisfies; we are left looking for the next happiness fix. Examining the difference between happiness and meaningfulness, social psychologist Roy Baumeister found that the emotions of happiness were focused on the present. In contrast, those who experienced meaningful lives linked past, present, and future.4 Mary sings the praises of God’s past works in her Magnificat, while the good news that the Angel Gabriel brought to Zechariah was not just about the impending birth of his son but the entire gospel arc of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
There is a third aspect to Joy. It’s often unanticipated. Zickfeld found that the most common type of tears came upon people as they unexpectedly experienced overwhelming kindness or exceptional love. This is the paradoxical aspect of joy. We may desire it but cannot force it, just as we cannot willfully shed tears of joy. We seek after happiness, but joy seeks after us. As Lewis wrote, “Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”5 If joy is made up of happiness and sadness and happiness is fleeting, then the only way for joy to find us is through hardship or sorrow. But we open ourselves up to experience joy in that sorrow through gratitude. Paul reminds us exactly of this turn in Romans 5:3-5, writing, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”
Making up for a lousy childhood, I have too often chased after some modicum of happiness for most of my adult life, not knowing exactly what I was looking for. But the weariness of these pandemic times has not provided much in the way of happiness. Instead, in gratitude, I, too, have been surprised by joy, overwhelmed by unexpected friendships and underserved acts of kindness. Meaningfulness and its attendant joy have finally beat out my quest for happiness. As this advent season unfolds, I am especially attuned to the rejoicing found in our Christmas hymns. My yuletide prayer is that through joy, God and this sinner are reconciled.
- Edward Deci and Richard M. Ryan, Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: an introduction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9 no.1 (2008): 1–11.
- Clive S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The shape of my early life [1st American ed.]. New York: Harcourt, Brace (1956), 17.
- Janis Zickfeld, Beate Seibt, Ljiljana B. Lazarevic, Iris Zezelj, and Ad Vingerhoets. A Model of Positive Tears. PsyArXiv, November 8 (2020): preprint.
- Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker and Emily N. Garbinsky. Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8 no. 6 (2013): 505-516.
- Lewis, 17-18.