Relationships can make me happy but they don’t always bring me joy.
Growing up, I was shy and studious. I lacked in the friend department because I tended to withdraw from others to focus on my work. This is true even as an adult: I love the work I do and easily lose myself in projects. When this happens, I often don’t notice my lack of connection until I look up and recognize the absence of people around me. In these moments, I feel lonely and begin to look for happiness in relationships.
I try to love my friends to the best of my ability. I’ll spend my free time bringing them gifts “just because,” listening to their stories and feeling their emotions, or offering words of encouragement.
But then my personality kicks in like it did when I was younger.
I can become socially overwhelmed from spending too much time around people, and withdraw out of a need for alone time. I refuse to include my friends in my life or pursue them in theirs. I barely leave the house, and I bury myself in a project or TV show. I begin to focus on my loneliness, angry that no one has reached out after I’ve pushed them all away, and I sink into a shallow depression.
If I reach out to the friends I’ve neglected and come up empty-handed, I become even more bitter. I sink deeper into loneliness, feeling unwanted and undeserving, even though I put myself in this situation.
It’s a vicious cycle caused by my fixation on finding happiness in people. The only way to stop it in its tracks is to start seeking joy instead.
HAPPINESS VS. JOY
It takes time and practice to know the difference between happiness and joy.
Happiness is what we seek out for ourselves, but joy is what we find when we see the Lord. We miss out on joy when we’re focused on getting more — more friends, more money, more recognition — that we think will make us happier or fix us. Circumstances and people can make us feel happy for a while, of course, but that happiness doesn’t last and constantly chasing after it can leave us feeling bitter, empty and lost.
Jesus flipped the narrative around.
In Mark 10, Jesus explains to a rich man that to inherit eternal life, he has to give up all of his possessions. “At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (verse 22, NLT). The rich man wasn’t thrilled at the idea of giving up everything he had worked for. But what he thought would make him happy wasn’t the same thing that would grant him a joyful, kingdom-focused life. The world told the rich young ruler that he needed more to be happy; the world tells us the same thing today.
Here’s the good news: The presence of the Lord will never make us feel unsatisfied, because he is everlasting and good. The world will eventually leave us feeling unhappy because of what we don’t have. Circumstances and people can let us down. But joy found in the Lord is not like that. “For God has said, ‘I will never fail you. I will never abandon you’” (Hebrews 13:5, NLT).
It’s a vital switch. To step into joy, we have to stop looking inward at what we want or think we need to make us happy and begin looking at the kind of life that Jesus modeled — one marked by looking outward and upward.
What makes you feel so alive that you know it can’t be from yourself, that it is ethereal and divine?
That’s where joy begins.
The first step in pursuing joy is to identify the traits we’ve been given by God and the bits of himself that he has instilled in us. For example, my heart feels like it’s going to beat out of my chest when I’m working on a piece of art. I never want to stop creating because it makes me feel alive. “Creator” is a quality of the Lord’s that I’ve inherited from him and it is in that space of creating that I feel closest to him.
Genesis 1:27 says it plainly: “So God created human beings in his own image” (NLT). We are mirrors of the Creator. Each of us has traits that bring us further into communion with him and help us know him better. Most friendships are based around a shared interest or belief, offering us a way to relate to each other. But that connector can also be a way to see different perspectives and learn from each other.
Another way we can cultivate joy is to seek God in the world around us. Personally, I find joy in beauty — art, nature, music, people. These are the things that I see God reflected in, and so they are the things that bring me joy.
He is there in colorful paint strokes, in the sun glimmering through green and yellow leaves, in a soulful violin solo, in the smile of a stranger. These are the bright moments of my life and the ones I revert back to every time I recall joy. They feel like moments God designed and gave specifically to me because he knew they would bring me the joy I needed to press on.
James 1:17a says: “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens” (NLT). While joy presents itself in different ways, true joy is always a reflection of our Creator.
I wish I could tell you that the awareness of how to seek joy instead of happiness has solved all of my problems. Just because we’re actively pursuing God though doesn’t mean we always get it right. Sometimes I still push my friends out of my life, retreat into my mind and wallow in my loneliness. I can allow relationships (or lack thereof) to determine my worth. I can slip into looking for happiness instead of joy.
But the Lord — in his endless grace — pursues me and constantly shows himself when I need it most. I have burst into tears at the sight of two birds swooping around each other in the morning light, seeing pure joy in his creation. If I stop focusing on why I’m unhappy or what I think I want or need to be happy, I can and will see him instead. I see the joy he calls me into.
As I train my eyes to see the light of the Lord in every circumstance, my feelings can be replaced by the exceeding joy found by being in communion with our God.