Licking Happiness and Forsaking Joy

Happiness and JoyWe’re drawn to simple pleasures. They go down easy. They make us happy. But sometimes, I wonder if we’re settling.

Settling for something less than joy

On the first of July, as the minutes ticked toward midnight, I stood at the edge of the country. I faced east, gazing out over a dark and undulating Atlantic.

And I held my breath.

Because hundreds of miles northward a vast thundercloud throbbed with orange pulses of energy, and jagged bolts of lightning showered the horizon. From a distance, it was quiet, but violent and powerful and breath-taking.

And at the same time, the sky above me was star-scattered and, from the south, a full moon bathed the beach in a gentle glow.

In one direction—violence and destruction. In the other direction—tranquility and beauty. And me. Standing in the middle of it.


The beach was empty. On the fluorescently-lit boardwalk several hundred yards away, throngs of tourists licked ice cream and ate funnel cake and pushed quarters into arcade games.


They were enjoying the classic American holiday weekend. Last week, Americans spent three billion dollars celebrating the holiday. Three billion dollars on gas, and burgers, and soda-pop, and sparklers. I contributed more than my fair share.

But I wonder if all of us were settling?

I wonder if we settle for happy things on the boardwalk of life.

You see, happiness is all about circumstance and situation. It’s all about orchestrating events so life is comfortable and pleasurable and fun. Happiness is what happens when all the tumblers fall into place and life just clicks.

It’s sitting on the front porch on a perfect June evening with plenty of money in the bank account. It’s the right job coming along at the right time. It’s your kid walking down the aisle in a cap and gown with a full-ride scholarship, or your daughter walking down the aisle in a completely different kind of gown to take the hand of a guy you actually like.

Happiness is winning lottery tickets, and good luck, and serendipity, and pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming.

Happiness is the perfect ice cream cone on the boardwalk, with fireworks on the way and a long beach week with cloudless skies ahead of you.

Happiness is sweet.

And we’re drawn to it like moths.

And why wouldn’t we be? Happiness goes down easy.

But happiness is always fleeting. Because circumstances change.

The furnace goes out and the roof springs a leak, and suddenly the financial margin evaporates. Or the new boss is a disaster. Or the kid comes home after a semester at college because the pressure got to him first and the amphetamines got to him next.

Happiness is an ice cream cone that melts, leaving you with sticky fingers and a constant hunger for more.

But Joy.

Joy is a place inside every circumstance. It’s a constant place, and it feels like peace, and it gives hope, and it looks like love, but it is more than all of these things, and words will always fail it.

And the place of joy is waiting for us.

But there’s a catch:

It only exists smack in the middle of the lightning and the moonlight. In fact, the place of joy in us cannot exist independent of the storms in life, because joy is the peace that comes from looking right into the storm and feeling freedom from it.

Joy is the place we stumble upon when we look our deepest pain and greatest fear directly in the eyes, and we refuse to flinch. It’s the place we stumble upon when we decide pain and fear aren’t going to be the final word. It’s the place where we anchor ourselves in something more than the vicissitudes of our material existence. It’s the place of freedom inside every situation, where we realize the things that are happening to us are losing their power to control us and define us.

Joy is not the answer to hardship. Rather, it is the birth of an entirely new way to experience the pain and the fear and the sorrow itself. Joy is watching the lightning-violence and trusting there is moonlight-peace just over our shoulder.

Joy is lightning and moonlight, all at once.

Joy is not knowing where the next meal will come from, yet hearing the laughter of your children and allowing yourself to be fed by it. Joy is the chaos of a toddler and newborn twins and a husband who just left you, and a knock on the door from a friend. Joy is sitting in the doctor’s office while the cancer grows, and deciding to love the stranger next to you anyway, with a comforting word and a smile. Joy is walking alone and lonely down a crowded city street and suddenly feeling yourself surrounded and joined by the millions of stories being lived every day. Joy is standing in the middle of the street during a historic blizzard, and shouting at it in defiance.

The night after I stood between the lightning and the moonlight, I boarded the Paratrooper ride at the boardwalk carnival with my oldest son. The Paratrooper is a kind of Ferris Wheel on steroids, whipping you up and down with legs dangling and feet flying out into the open air.

As the ride commenced with a lurch and a growling-hum, Aidan gripped the sticky handlebar with desperate tenacity. Looking straight ahead, he confessed, “Daddy, I’m terrified.” As we crested the top of the orbit, I shouted to him, “Put your hands in the air, Aidan; if you can do this, you can do anything!”

I’m not sure that’s entirely true, but I knew it would feel true to him.

And with joyful defiance, my gutsy, lovely son raised his arms above his head and let loose a wild scream, all terror and glory at the same time. Violence and beauty, all at once. My son stepped into the lightning and the moonlight. He chose his terror and found a joyful freedom there.

I think he’s glad he didn’t sit on the sidelines licking an ice cream cone.

If we’re going to live, really live, we have to choose to stand in the middle of the lightning and the moonlight, because that’s where joy is found. That’s where we find peace and freedom from the pain and fear, in the midst of the pain and fear.

And that kind of joy gives birth to meaning and beauty. It will be more terrifying than ice cream. But it will be vastly more joyful than funnel cake.

What ice-cream-cones-of-life are you licking?

Where is the dark beach of your life? Are you ready to step off the boardwalk and go there?

Because there will be lightning waiting, but there will also be moonlight.

And in the middle of it all?



*About the Blog: For this post, I owe a debt of gratitude to all of you who contributed your ideas on the Facebook page.  And for those of you coming out of traditions and cultures that transpose the words joy and happiness, please forgive my ethno-centricity, and I hope it resonates anyway!

Share Your Comment! Have you ever found moonlight in the midst of the lightning? We’d love to hear about your experience of joy!

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

16 thoughts on “Licking Happiness and Forsaking Joy

  1. Thank you so much for yet another column that touched my soul. I am traditionally wary of psychologists and their ilk, simply because they seem to talk around and around the age-old struggles of “human-being-ism,” only to rearrange old notions and present them as new, end-all solutions to life’s ups and downs. And soon, it is time to rearrange again and perhaps sell another book.

    Your simple and powerful insights are in a category all by themselves: a contemplative and honest look into the complexities of life, which in the end, cause me to view them in a simpler, purer way. To me, your thoughts are heaven-sent. And most assuredly heavenly.

    Please don’t ever become Dr. Phil! 😉

    • Judy, Your words touched me deeply. Thank you for the affirmation and encouragement!

  2. Wow. This is so powerful, and so true. You’ve captured that bittersweet point right in the middle, where joy and grace live. It’s perfect.

    After I read your blog, I picked up Nouwen, and opened to this: “I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. I dare even to say: ‘My grief was the place where I found my joy””

    How’s that for serendipity?

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

    • Thank you, Kim, and thanks for reblogging the post. I know that is like inviting someone else into your space, and I’m honored. Nouwen’s writings on joy are absolutely beautiful!

  3. Reblogged this on Small Spaces and commented:
    I’m a huge fan of Dr. Kelly Flanagan, and in this post, he captures the middle place where joy and grace live so beautifully.

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  5. This is so powerful and so true. So many times I want to be happy when things don’t seem right, but it is joy that is really what I need to find because it’s not dependent on circumstances! So well and clearly stated, thank you!

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  7. Thank you for confirming once again that this place of joy is so attainable and is directly linked to our intimacy with Him and that place of peace that “passes understanding”…..I love the simplicity and directness of your writing!!!

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  11. “Joy is walking alone and lonely down a crowded city street and suddenly feeling yourself surrounded and joined by the millions of stories being lived every day.”

    straight to my heart. the exact words. i think i lack happiness now but i am still joyful. thank you so much Dr. Kelly. bless your heart.

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