By Mark E. Moore
“The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness,” said Benjamin Franklin, before adding, “you have to catch it yourself.”
Happiness is temporary; joy is permanent. At least that’s what I have been told. But I no longer believe that to be true. Happiness comes from external things; joy comes from what’s inside. At least that’s what I have been told. But I no longer believe that to be true.
I suppose we can use happiness and joy to mean whatever we want them to mean. After all, that’s the way language works. We can make words mean what we want them to mean. But biologically and biblically, it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I will attempt to explain why.
THE BIOLOGY OF JOY
Some have said, “God doesn’t want you happy, he wants you holy!” When I first heard that, I thought, Man that sings! I’m gonna use that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it is fatally flawed. The statement assumes happiness and holiness are antithetical—that one cannot pursue happiness and be holy or pursue holiness and be happy. However, the Bible tells us holiness leads to happiness. That’s the theology behind the biology embedded in our brains.
We were designed by God to experience happiness. The chemistry in our brains reveals our creator’s intentions. When a Ferrari’s engine roars as the sports car blows by you on the freeway, you just know that whoever designed that vehicle wanted it to go fast. Likewise, if you lift the hood on your cerebellum and look at the engine between your ears, you realize you were designed for happiness. God, as a good Father, made you with the capacity for immense joy. Here’s how it works:
Happiness is a chemical cocktail made up of three very addictive chemicals that are released in your brain:
- Oxytocin is a chemical of comfort, released through a handshake, a hug, or a pat on the back. It comes from human connection.
- Dopamine is the chemical of excitement, released through discovery, exploration, and adventure.
- Serotonin is the chemical of respect, released through accolades, titles, and trophies.
These chemicals create feelings of joy, happiness, or satisfaction. We may draw distinctions between these words intellectually, but our bodies have no way of discerning their differences.
The bad news is that these chemicals are short-lived and must be replenished continually. This creates a craving or, one might say, an addiction to these “happy juices.” The good news is that it doesn’t take much to release a squirt of any of these chemicals. It can be as simple as a “like” on social media, a joke at work, a random act of kindness to a stranger, or a warm embrace upon returning home.
The opportunities for building joy are perpetually available and easy to access. Hundreds of times a day, we can choose to make a decision that leads to happiness. Smiling at a stranger, taking a moment to appreciate a sunrise, doing an extra rep at the gym, or sending a note of gratitude. It is easy and it is everywhere. That’s God’s plan. By repeatedly doing simple things for others, you achieve small doses of happiness.
Joy is not what you receive, it is what you achieve. If you control your habits, you control your happiness. You were not designed for long-term happiness but long-term habits. God’s secret to happiness is that it comes more from giving than receiving; it is more achieved than received.
Sociological research bears this out. According to studies, genetics accounts for 50 percent of our baseline for happiness. (In other words, some people are more naturally like Eeyore while others lean toward Tigger.) Only 10 percent of our happiness is accounted for by circumstances (job status, relationships, health, etc.). That means 40 percent of our happiness depends on the choices we make and the habits we develop. That is huge! Imagine if you could control 40 percent of the stock market. You would be stupid rich. And joy is far more meaningful than finances. God’s plan is genius.
Happy people are 31 percent more productive in their lives. In sales, happy people move 37 percent more product. Happy physicians make better and faster decisions by a margin of 19 percent. We think that happiness follows success. As it turns out, success follows happiness. We become addicted, so to speak, to the good behaviors that give us the desired doses of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. As a result, our quest for happiness leaves joy for others in its wake. Who but God would come up with such a plan?
THE BIBLE ON JOY
Biblically speaking, joy is not merely what we receive but what we achieve. In studying the Old Testament, we find joy through each of the following:
• God’s election. Israel was blessed because they were chosen by Yahweh (Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 33:12; 144:15).
• God’s law. God blesses those who fear the Lord (Psalm 34:9; 40:4; 84:4-5, 12; 89:15; 112:1; 146:5; Proverbs 16:20) and keep his commands (Psalm 119:1-2; 128:1-2; Proverbs 28:14, 29:18; Isaiah 56:2), who are disciplined (Psalm 94:12) and forgiven by God (Psalm 32:1-2).
• righteous friends. Psalm 1:1 is an especially important passage on joy because it is the gateway to worship in God’s Word.
• finding wisdom. Paradoxically, Solomon wrote passages like Proverbs 3:13; 8:32, 34 for his son Rehoboam, who divided the kingdom as soon as he sat on the throne. Wisdom, therefore, is more in actions than academics.
• showing mercy to the poor (Psalm 41:1; 106:3; Proverbs 14:21).
• a coming Messiah (Psalm 2:12; see Isaiah 30:18; Daniel 12:12). Ultimately, joy comes from God.
Notice the trajectory of joy in the Old Testament. It starts with God (as the source), extends to friends around us, and ultimately spreads to the poor who live below us economically. We receive it, we live it, we give it. This same trajectory runs through the New Testament, starting with Jesus, the promised Messiah. Those who follow him find joy in salvation from him and persecution because of him.
By the time we open the pages of the New Testament, joy explodes, and it centers exclusively on Jesus. There are far more uses of joy/happiness/blessing in the New Testament than the Old Testament. That’s because joy now comes from Jesus and the salvation he offers. It flows to those who journey with us in following Jesus. And ultimately, it extends, paradoxically, to the persecution we experience because of our association with Jesus. As these verses illustrate, we receive it, we live it, and then we give it:
- Jesus’ Presence (Matthew 2:10; Luke 13:17; 19:6, 37; 23:8; John 3:29; 8:56; 11:15; 16:20, 22; 20:20; Philippians 3:1; 4:4, 10; Revelation 19:7)
- Salvation in Jesus (Matthew 18:13; Luke 10:20; 15:5, 32; John 4:36; Acts 8:39; 11:23; 13:48; 15:31; Philippians 1:18)
- Living the life of Jesus in hope, obedience, endurance, truth, and repentance (Romans 12:12; 16:19; 1 Corinthians 13:6; 2 Corinthians 7:9; James 5:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16; 2 John 4)
- Christian brothers and sisters (1 Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 2:3; 7:7, 13, 16; 13:9, 11; Philippians 2:28; Colossians 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:9; 3 John 3)
- Being persecuted for Jesus (Matthew 5:12; 1 Peter 3:14; 4:14; Luke 6:23; Acts 5:41; Philippians 2:17-18; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13)
Notice the New Testament theology of joy follows the same trajectory as the Old. It starts with Jesus, God’s Son, permeates our behavior, and then flows to others. The gravitational pull of joy in the New Testament is inexorably tied to Jesus and his death on a cross. This is seen in the very language used to describe joy—chairo (used 116 times). This is related to the word charis, which we translate “grace,” and which is also connected with the word for gratitude. Note the root word chari in each of these related words:
charis = Grace
charin = Joy
Eucharistia = Thanks
Grace is what God gives. Joy is what we receive. And thanks is what we give back. Is it any wonder, then, that the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are peppered with this word for joy?
The Magi had joy at seeing Jesus: “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:10-12).
Jesus’ forerunner John would introduce joy: “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth” (Luke 1:14).
John rejoiced in utero when meeting Jesus as a zygote: “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44).
The neighbors rejoiced at John the Baptist’s birth: “Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy” (Luke 1:58).
The angels announced joy to the world through the shepherds: “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11).
From the time he came to the day of his return, Jesus is the source and center of our joy. We receive it from him, we live it in the church, and we give it in the world through sacrificial service. This is all by God’s design. It is not only a gift from God that we receive, but also a habit of service we achieve. And that, according to Scripture, is the secret of happiness.
Mark E. Moore serves as teaching pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, and is author of Core52: A Fifteen-Minute Daily Guide to Build Your Bible IQ in a Year.