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Two related articles in this past Sunday’s New York Times caught my eye and have been rattling around in my head since I read them. The first article made the familiar claim that more money does not necessarily buy more happiness. Yes, people in poverty struggle and consistently report that they are not happy but once a person or a family achieve a household income of about $75,000 per year, happiness and satisfaction are reported at much higher rates. However, earning more than that $75,000 threshold does not yield ever-increasing levels of happiness in life. A second article pointed out that although liberals and many readers of something like the Times may not like it, the fact is that conservatives report higher levels of happiness (significantly higher, according to the research) than those who self-identify as liberals. When the data on this is correlated, it becomes clear that the two key contributing factors to conservative feelings of satisfaction in life stem from the fact that more conservatives are in stable marriages and they tend to be active in exercising religious faith as well.
So there you have it: money may not buy happiness but neither will you be happy forever to be fiscally at sea. And if you have a solid family life and active faith in God, you will feel better about your life and your place in that life than people who live alone and go only to a local Starbucks on Sunday mornings.
All of this is interesting if not finally earth-shattering or unduly startling. But what studies and research into such matters as personal happiness cannot measure–or at least what such studies seldom even try to measure–is the much thicker spiritual fruit not of happiness but of joy. If you have ever looked into the Fruit of the Spirit, then you know that joy is no more the equivalent of happiness than hope is the same thing as mere optimism. Happiness comes and goes depending on circumstances, and even these studies bear that much out. If you make a comfortable living, have a stable marriage, and find meaning in faith, you will be happy. But if the bottom on any of that falls out–and that kind of thing happens with grim regularity in our lives–then happiness will depart as well.
But not joy. Joy, as someone once said, is a second feeling, not a first. Joy persists when the bottom drops out. Joy is what the Apostle Paul conveyed in his letters even when writing from some dim prison cell with shackles rattling on his wrists and ankles. Joy is the fruit of the Holy Spirit even when the circumstances of our lives are outwardly wasting away because joy comes to those who have been to the cross, have unabashedly witnessed its horrors, and yet can see through that cross to the resurrection that brought true joy to the comsos once again.
In a sermon on joy some years ago I wrote, “Joy is the deep-down, never-fleeing sense that God in Christ is here, that he has saved us and this whole blessed creation, and that because of that we, as well as bobcats, lynx, lady bugs, and parrot fish, have a future. Someone once noted that when young children wake up in the middle of the night, afraid because of a thunderclap or a nightmare, the child will cry out, “Mommy, Daddy!” Good parents typically respond to this cry by answering back, “It’s all right, it’s all right.” What is that which we say to our children? Those words “It’s all right”? It is either a grand lie or the dearest of all truths.
Because in this world there are things that terrify, threaten, sadden, and kill. If life is, nevertheless and at bottom, really “all right,” then we need a good reason for saying and believing that. Christians think they have that good reason: it is the resurrected presence of Jesus Christ in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. It is the delicious foretaste of a promise which Jesus has given us; a promise of a time, a world, a new creation, a kingdom in which all truly will be forever and ever “all right.” And insofar as we are already now hidden in Christ, we also are already “all right,” alive in Jesus and enlivened by him.”
Happiness is a fine thing and I am not so spiritual a person as to deny that I’d rather be happy than sad, fulfilled than at loose ends and struggling to scrape by. But although no one may be doing research on it just now, joy is where it is really at for Christians. Conservatives who read the NY Times piece may feel like they have something to crow about vis-a-vis their less-happy liberal compatriots. But if behind that happiness there is not finally a deep-rooted joy in Christ, well then, even happiness can only bring you so far.