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The Transformational Difference Between Happiness and Joy


Michael J. Fox is one of the iconic actors of our generation. Whether you remember him from the TV sitcom Family Ties, the movie Back to the Future, or his numerous other shows and films, you probably have a mental image of an upbeat, irreverent, witty guy. And you’d be right.

His fourth memoir was published on Tuesday. No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality reads as if Fox is talking directly to us. He tells the now-familiar story of his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease at the age of twenty-nine and the decades he has battled its effects. He has become a world-leading activist for treatments and a cure, creating a foundation which has funded $1 billion in Parkinson’s research over the years.

But Fox also tells of surgery two years ago to remove a benign tumor from his spinal cord, a difficult procedure that was successful but required him to relearn how to walk as a result. Four months later, he fell in his Manhattan home, causing a spiral fracture of his left arm that required nineteen pins and a plate to stabilize.

He describes eloquently his gratitude for his wife, Tracy, and her courage, grace, and wisdom that have sustained him through their decades of marriage. His love for their four children and his close friends is tangible. Through it all, his trademark optimism shines bright.

In fact, it is fair to say that optimism comes close to a faith commitment for Fox.

"I'm losing my religion"

At one point, Fox states that he is not a “subscriber to any particular orthodoxy.” However, he speaks of optimism as “my faith.”

The problem is that, in the midst of his recent physical struggles, he feared “losing my religion.” He began to wonder, “Have I oversold optimism as a panacea, commodified hope?” In the midst of his pain, he admitted, “My attempt to make any sense of it leaves me feeling indifferent. I’m numb. Weary. Optimism, as a frame of mind, is not saving me.”

Eventually, however, his perspective deepened: “I’m beginning to see that faith, or fear’s opposite, can be expressed as gratitude, which has always been the bedrock of my optimism.”

His book closes: “Really, it comes down to gratitude. I am grateful for all of it—every bad break, every wrong turn, and the unexpected losses—because they’re real. It puts into sharp relief the joy, the accomplishments, the overwhelming love of my family. I can be both a realist and an optimist” (his emphasis).

Reading Fox’s memoir was bittersweet for me. I thoroughly enjoyed his humorous stories and self-deprecating wit. It was inspiring to see the unconditional love of his wife and children for him. But his faith in gratitude-based optimism ultimately leaves both Fox and his reader short. 

One comes away with the question, “Is this all there is?”

Beware the "hedonic treadmill"

Michael J. Fox’s memoir is the story of secular America at its most aspirational. Achieving success through talent and hard work while enduring struggles through perseverance and the love of family and friends—this is the best many hope for.

Fox is right in a sense: happiness is far less the result of our circumstances than our response to them. Psychologists refer to the “hedonic treadmill” as “the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.”

However, we were made for more than happiness.

Happiness depends on happenings, circumstances that are often beyond our control. Biblical joy is different. It has been described as “a sense of wellbeing that transcends circumstances.” (For more, see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about joy?“)

We can be happy or sad in the moment, but we can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). How?

One: Stay yielded to God’s Spirit

The Bible describes joy as a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22), a manifestation of God’s Spirit at work in our lives. If Christians begin every day by surrendering to the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), we will find that we can pray with David, “In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

Are you experiencing the “fullness of joy” today?

Two: Trust God to redeem your challenges

Yielding to God’s Spirit positions us to experience the joy he alone can give. Then we can “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3). Such steadfastness produces “its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (v. 4). (For more on such faith, see Minni Elkins’ website article, “In a record year for storms, let’s find shelter in the Almighty.”) 

Are you “perfect and complete” today?

Three: Never give up on God

When Paul and Silas sang hymns at midnight in prison, “the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Your fellow inmates in your “prison” will do the same today.

Andy Stanley is pastor of the second-largest church in America. When a reporter for the Atlantic asked him if the political divisiveness of our day would have a long-term adverse effect on the Church, he said: “Once upon a time, a handful of disenfranchised Jews crushed between an empire and a temple maintained their faith in a resurrected Savior and changed the world. So we’re good to go.”

Such transforming faith is the basis for our optimism and our joy.

What hymns will you sing today?

Publication date: November 19, 2020

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Nicholas Hunt/Staff

Jim Denison, PhD, is a cultural theologian and the founder and CEO of Denison Ministries. Denison Ministries includes DenisonForum.org, First15.org, ChristianParenting.org, and FoundationsWithJanet.org. Jim speaks biblically into significant cultural issues at Denison Forum. He is the chief author of The Daily Article and has written more than 30 books, including The Coming Tsunamithe Biblical Insight to Tough Questions series, and The Fifth Great Awakening.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of CrosswalkHeadlines.

For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.

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