An era of good feelings

Happiness vs. joy: what's the difference?

Two years ago, Carl Trueman wrote The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, in which he explores the origins of a worldview obsessed with the expressive individual and her happiness. Earlier this year, my friend Guilherme de Carvalho, head of l’Abri Brasil, spoke on the subject of an “affective revolution” that has swept through the western world. Both Trueman and Carvalho focus on the reality that the larger culture has become preoccupied with a quest for emotional well-being. The concern for human happiness is by no means new; Aristotle affirmed it as the proper end of human life. Aristotle, however, identified happiness with living a life of virtue, not with cheerful emotions.

What is new is the identification of happiness with feeling good about oneself. The slightest dip in one’s self-esteem is increasingly regarded as a crisis needing to be addressed and resolved, probably through some form of therapy combined with social approbation. Suffering, and even mere inconvenience, are rendered meaningless, regarded as the deprivation of a good life. Sadly, even Christians have imbibed this worldview. Many Christians effectively subordinate the authority of God’s word to their personal aspirations, diminishing the seriousness of our sinful proclivities and with them Christ’s sacrifice to atone for our sins.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

The tyranny of the wilful self

The consequences of this era of good feelings are playing out. A society composed of self-affirming individuals brings us perilously close to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, which he famously described as a war of all against all. Expressive individualism demotes ordinary human responsibilities to the tyranny of the wilful self. Because my emotions are mutable and my sense of self may develop over time, my constant efforts to seek affirmation from the larger society can only lead to further conflict which the state will be expected to settle – which is well beyond what the state can be expected to do.

Although the Bible has much to say about happiness, the word we are most likely to see in our English translations is joy. The link to the emotions is certainly there: “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). But then the apostle James says: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2). True happiness comes, not from getting my own way or affirming my own shifting proclivities, but from a constant and heartfelt obedience to God in Christ as expressed in his word. Happiness as an emotion is fleeting, while the joy we find in God endures eternally.


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One Comment

  1. One of the biggest problems in saying things about topics like joy is that the answers almost always reveal the questioner. I participated in a Photo-voice project about health-care in rural B.C. and by using photography and focus groups, the project actually helped illustrate how people actually thought, felt, saw, and heard, rather than concentric answers circling around researchers’ questions.

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