To all asking, “Why am I unhappy?” . . .
On my wedding day, the pastor said something I haven’t forgotten.
“You may not always have happiness, but you can always have joy.”
Over the years, I’ve felt many moments of happiness. Incredible vacations all across the US, our traditional Coke and pretzel at baseball games, being an aunt to 7 amazing nephews and nieces, holidays (most of them), and tons of memories in our home. Reflecting on these happy moments always bring a smile.
But when life strays away from simple, and things get complicated . . . happiness sort of fades away.
Discontentment settles in.
Jobs get lost.
Debt piles up.
Kids grow and so does your stress level.
Masks get tight.
People we love pass away.
Others seem to be moving forward while you’re standing still.
The same argument enters the living room for the third time that week.
The cat poops in the house again. (Just me?)
I found myself at an especially low moment a couple weeks ago. Most of the day was spent hiding under the covers, mourning the happiness that seemed to escape like a bird in a cage. I don’t know who opened the cage door. I’m not sure when happiness was released. It was probably a pile of things that opened the door. But whenever it swung open, happiness flapped its wings and left me.
I see glimpses of it when it flies back in the form of a laugh, a song, a fun event, a friend . . . but then it flies away again, drifting deep into the dark clouds for the unforeseeable future.
Why am I unhappy?
Is happiness too much to ask?
Am I the only one feeling this way?
How can I make things better?
Recently, I got to see a dear friend who I hadn’t seen for about four years. In that time, she had gone to college, gotten married, divorced, and started medical school. She swept her shiny long hair over her shoulders as she sipped her cocktail, smiling and asking about my life between sips. Later, she opened up about her abusive marriage and retold moments with time stamps from each account that I’m sure she’ll always have memorized.
The darkness in her story is not easily forgettable and is even harder to imagine. Yet through her retelling, she laced in phrases like “There’s so much hope” and “Through everything, God has been so good to me.”
At the end of it all, she chuckled, “My life is like a Lifetime movie.”
And after a short silence, I joked, “I hate it to break it to you, but Lifetime movies aren’t that dark.”
We both belly laughed and sipped some more as she excitedly shared her dreams to become a doctor. Like any survivor’s testimony, her words were both unbelievable and awe-inspiring.
Is everything fixed in her life? Not at all.
Is she still healing? Absolutely.
Is she happy? I’m not sure.
Regardless of how happy she felt in that present moment, there was one thing that was completely evident.
The joy in her spirit.
Happiness is not the same as joy.
The thing is — my friend knows that happiness and joy are two separate things. Happiness is a state or reaction to an experience. It’s usually attached to a good thing, but it’s also quite conditional – if things are good, we’re happy. If they’re bad, we’re not happy. Sure, we can control our happiness for a time by deciding to go shopping or eating that cupcake . . . but like happiness does, it eventually fades like a softening applause. Like a bird escaping from its cage.
You see, joy is much deeper than a fleeting feeling. Joy is an emotion. It’s something you choose to have, regardless of your circumstances or how you feel in the present moment.
Happiness is like rising bubbles – delightful and inevitably fleeting. Joy is the oxygen – ever present.Danielle LaPorte
You can’t control your happiness, but you can control your joy.
Happiness starts with contentment.
If your happiness is tied to anything that is out of your control, you’re using a perfect recipe for unhappiness. You can find happiness in money for a time . . . until it runs out. You can find comfort in food for a moment . . . until your health fails you. You can find your happiness in your kids for a season . . . until they grow up and leave. Too many of the ways we find happiness can leave us in an instant. None of them are lasting.
Contentment reminds me of home. It’s the emotion and internal belief that you are complete, safe, and secure with exactly what you have. While happiness relies on things going right to feel content, joy says that contentment can be found no matter your circumstances.
Social media only shows the happy moments.
When was the last photo you posted? Do you remember how you felt or why you posted it?
The last photo I posted on Instagram was on Thanksgiving Day. My husband Ben and I ate turkey and got our tree. We threw a record on and I made some cookies. We watched A Miracle on 34th Street and everything seemed simple and right and beautiful. I was happy.
I assume that’s what most people do – post when they’re happy. That’s just one reason why we can’t depend on happiness for contentment.
When a person scrolls through hundreds of happy friends’ photos mindlessly, one’s subconscious begins to believe that everyone is happy. That’s when feelings of shame begin to flood the mind.
Why am I the only one that is not happy? I’m going through something hard, and everyone else is thriving.
In reality, social media presents us with rose colored glasses to see our closest friends, only to make us feel more alone and increasingly unhappy. It forces us into comparison, whether we realize it or not. And like the cliché says, comparison is the thief of joy. Joy simply cannot be found in comparing our lives and it certainly cannot be found in places that aren’t real.
Joy doesn’t mean settling for how things are.
I have a loved one in my life who deeply struggles with happiness and contentment. If you’re one of those people, let me see if I can understand you. You view life as either good or bad. It seems to you like those who are happy even in the midst of pain are disingenuous. To you, choosing joy during darkness feels like settling for life as it is.
I get it. Choosing something you can’t feel is nearly impossible.
But that’s the thing about joy — it’s deeper than a fleeting feeling or passing wave. It’s linked with faith – trusting that while darkness is here, joy comes in the morning. Joy is the inner hope of what beauty is to come.
I’d challenge you to ask yourself how you can change your current situation. Can you? Most likely, the factors in your life are out of your control. You can’t make people change. You can’t erase lingering wounds. You can’t change the past. You can’t make a pandemic go away in an instant.
What if I told you that having joy doesn’t mean you settle for your circumstances, but it’s the springboard out of your circumstances? By sitting in resentment, despair, and bitterness, you are – in fact – settling for your circumstances. You’re raising a white flag to the obstacles in your life, forfeiting the fight.
But by choosing joy, you are not pretending things are great when they aren’t. You’re recognizing that through the darkness, there is a light coming. You’re ready to see and accept all the good that the world holds.
In the middle of the season of Advent, I must remind you of one thing:
Our greatest joy came in the middle of the night.
It came in the middle of our darkness and despair. After the Kingdom of Judah was exiled, after the line of David was cut off . . . many thought that the Messiah whom the prophets foretold would never come. Their hope was lost.
But then, a rod sprung out of Jesse’s line. Our Messiah came when they least expected it. He fulfilled the prophesy from ages before. Our joy finally came that night in Bethlehem. That bright, holy night.
Friend, joy can come in darkness.
It can come for you. It can come for me. It can come for each and every loved one in your life.
In fact, darkness is where joy’s light shines the brightest. Let your courageous heart be willing to see it, grasp it, and share it with the world.
How desperately we all need it.