The Bible, in fact, “is indiscriminate in its pleasure language” using words like happiness, joy, contentment, delight, and satisfaction essentially as synonyms describing the same kinds of experiences. Happiness is not trivial. Human beings take it very seriously. And we can’t help it.
God means for you to seek the highest happiness there is to experience. The Bible teaches this, and many of the great saints of church history have taught it explicitly. But many twenty-first-century English-speakers stumble over such an idea.
One of the reasons is simply a phenomena of language: it evolves. New words are continually introduced, and old words, once commonly used, drop out altogether. And some words, still in use after hundreds of years, now mean something different than they once did — like the English word “happiness.”
Actually, “happiness” can still cover a broad range of human experience. But for many contemporary English-speakers — particularly Christians, in my experience — the definition has narrowed. They consider “happiness” a transient, even trivial kind of pleasure, usually derived from circumstances. They reserve the term “joy” for deeper, more substantial and durable pleasures. They would affirm the Peanuts philosophers who stated,
Happiness is finding a pencil, pizza with sausage, telling the time.
Happiness is learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time!
Happiness is two kinds of ice cream, knowing a secret, climbing a tree.
Happiness is five different crayons, catching a firefly, setting him free!
But they would say joy comes from more profound things, like God’s salvation (Psalm 51:12). This differentiation would have confused our English-speaking forebears from a couple centuries ago.
Happiness Is Not Trivial
I’ll give you an example all Americans will recognize. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted that all people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” For Jefferson, “happiness” was something more profound than the pursuit of the pleasures of pizza with sausage. He was dreaming of a nation where people would be free to devote their lives to pursuing what they believed would bring them the deepest, widest, most durable pleasures possible here on earth.
Read more of this story on the Desiring God website.