Posted by: Brad Stanford | March 4, 2017


Imagine, if you will, that I invited you to a bonfire. You arrive to discover that the bonfire is a mere six inches high and twelve inches across.

That’s not the expectation set by the word “bonfire”. It would burn out quickly, and unimpressively.

But take that same size, make it a pile of red-hot coals, and put it in my stove, and I can warm the entire front end of my house during winter.

This is the difference between happiness and joy.

Happiness is an emotion that burns brightly. It’s the bonfire, the party, the good times of the experience spectrum. Joy, however, takes time to build. To understand, think of building a fire.

On any given winter’s morning, you can find me repeating the same ritual: pile some kindling in the stove, get it lit, wait. Add larger kindling, wait. Add a log. Wait one hour, add another log. Wait another hour or two, poke the logs into pieces. Add more logs. And so forth.

By 10 or 11 am, I’ll have a decent pile of coals, and a warm house. By evening, it could be too hot, if I’ve run it full of wood all day long. Those small pieces of burning wood all pushed together sure doing amazing work. But it sure takes a lot of time.

A block of time in our lives can be heated by a number of things: a fantastic experience, a narrow escape, a devastating blow. Pile those things together in the stove, and you get the  glow of joy. That is, if you know why all those things are so valuable. The good times are obviously valuable. They are self explanatory, to the point that people worship them. Ironically, people will abandon everything from common sense to their families in search of the next happy moment. They chase happy moments like they are the most important things on the earth,

But bad times are also part of the equation of joy. In the same way the good times reveal the wiring of your pleasure center, the bad times reveal your character. It is through the successes, failures, and improvements of our character that the bad times become contributors to joyfulness – joy-fullness. In this way, the bad times become highly valuable.

The great indicator of not understanding the value of the bad times is bitterness. Bitterness comes because bad times are always taking something from us, and we get tired of the bully, yet we feel powerless to do anything about it. So we chase the good times. Rinse and repeat. This seemingly endless cycle births hopelessness. Hopelessness then solidifies the idea that the majority of life will always be bad. We get bitter not only about what we have already lost, but what we’ve decided will be lost in the future.

And this is the secret of joy: joy is just as much present-future as bitterness is. Just as bitterness accounts for the present gain that will be lost in the future, joy accounts for the harvest that will be reaped from the present sufferings. Bitterness calls the game before it starts. Joy lets the dame play out before declaring a winner.

Like fire, experiences show up, burn, and disappear, leaving behind only photographs and memories, as Jim Croce would say. You can stand in the middle of them and get burned up with them, or you can learn to position yourself outside of them, and be warmed by them.

Joy is both a choice and a gift. The gift is getting through the experiences that could have been devastating, but weren’t. You can then choose what to take away from those experiences. If you consider it dumb luck that you’re still here, or are simply braced for the next bad experience, joy will be continually out of reach, something that is only possible over there, where the grass is greener.

But if you can stop for a moment of reflection and see that no one owed you that last breath you inhaled and yet you received it, that is the beginning of joy. More than just counting your blessings, it’s the ability to see the purpose of those unmerited favors in the grand scheme of things.

Happiness is fantastic, for sure, just like fireworks are beautiful to watch. However, chasing explosions seems less useful than sitting next to the fire warming oneself in the middle of cold days. Joy is a far better measure of life than happiness. Your ability to see or estimate how the events in your life connect to your destiny will tell me more about your quality of life than your lists of favorite activities and pet peeves. Quality of life comes from what you’re able to handle, not what you’re able to do.

Joy comes from knowing the result of getting through the next thing, good or bad.

The secret to joy, then, is going through things, not escaping from them.



  1. I miss you Brad. Though we’ve only spent a very small time together, you are one of the wisest and most thoughtful people I know who uses his ability to express that thought and wisdom to share it with others. I’d like to surround myself with friends like you. I feel it would greatly improve my life. Finding a group of positive, uplifting men and women like you to be closer to is going to have to be a goal. Thank you for sharing your love. I hope to see you soon my brother, face to face.

    Trey Holcomb

    • Thank you so much! I miss you, too. DO NOT underestimate your gift for identifying and defending what is good and just. We’re simply working two different walls of the same fort.

      I’m confident our paths will cross in the near future. Let’s make it sooner rather than later. Maybe a summer break steak night or something.

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