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Thanksgiving Is a Time for Joy More Than Happiness

Very happy people are OK, according to a “standard happiness test” conducted by professors Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania.

The happiness gurus compared a sample of very happy college students–the guinea pigs of psychological testing–to average and unhappy students, reported columnist Jim Shahin in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />American Way magazine. “The very happy students tended to be very social, extroverted, and agreeable and have strong romantic and other relationships,” Shahin noted. “They also were less neurotic and scored lower on several tests for emotional problems.”

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The study also discovered very happy people don’t consider themselves more attractive, do experience positive feelings most of the time, occasionally undergo negative moods and “have a functioning emotion system that can react appropriately to life events.” 
That last part about having the emotional composition to “react appropriately to life events” probably is the trigger. People who can take life as it comes usually seem to be happy, if for no other reason than they don’t panic and refuse to allow the extremes of their emotions to control them.

As I read Shahin’s column–in which he made a very pointed and apparently accurate assessment that curmudgeons are funnier than happy people–I couldn’t help but wish professors Diener and Seligman had studied the relationship of happiness to joy.

Happiness depends upon circumstances. I’m happy when I choose the shortest line at the supermarket, happy when the stock market goes up, happy when the chopped steak at Luby’s is cooked to crunchy perfection, happy when the phone rings and it’s a call from a friend instead of a telemarketer. You can make your own list of incidents that make you happy.

But joy transcends circumstances. I take joy in my relationship with my Savior, Jesus Christ, in the love of my family, in the companionship of my friends, in the knowledge that this life we live is an incomparable gift. Your list of joy-producers may be similar to mine, and we both could add to our lists.

The difference in joy and happiness is that joy remains, whatever the circumstances. A person can grieve and still draw from a wellspring of joy. The loss of a loved one yields great sadness, yet even in that loss those who have been loved find joy in the relationship that graced and blessed their lives. Joy is stronger than happiness. It endures when happiness fades.

Shahin’s article didn’t say if professors Diener and Seligman are people of faith. However, I would be intrigued by a study of joy among Christians. I believe the study would show that Christians whose faith is vibrant are at root joyful people. The Apostle Paul tells us joy is one of the nine fruits of the Spirit. According to “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance,” he only lists happiness once, while he discusses joy 24 times.

I recently heard a dear Christian woman talk about experiencing the Great Depression and World War II. “Of course, we were joyful, even in those times,” she said. Sad, scared and sorrowful? Of course. But joy overcame circumstances. She described how her joy was rooted in confidence in God’s goodness and the love of family and friends that battles could not destroy.

This week, we pause to celebrate Thanksgiving, and that is a good thing. We pause to count our blessings and thank God. Often, the blessings we count are the circumstantial events and experiences that make us happy, and they are wonderful. But this year, we approach Thanksgiving riding on a limping economy under clouds of terrorism and war. These experiences produce elemental fear and sadness. In this time, we need to look deeper to the spiritual blessings that cannot be destroyed by bombs or bear markets. Leap into the arms of God and have a joyful Thanksgiving. 
Marv Knoxis editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.