Why Do Even Our Best Things Fail To Bring Joy?

[To listen to a reading of this article, click here.]

Most people we meet have a skill (or character trait or accomplishment) of which they are proud—and not “proud” in a negative conceited sense, just a sense of satisfaction.

I‘ve met bosses who are proud of (happy with) their leadership skills; and I’ve met employees who are proud of (satisfied with) their teamwork talent. I’ve met professors who are proud of (content with) their intellectual prowess; and I’ve met carpenters who are proud of (pleased with) their craftsmanship.

We all have things we are proud of in the good sense, be it the color of our eyes or the fact we’re not a jerk (like someone else we know). Someone I know befriended a street person who took pride in his independence of society’s “modern machine.”

This good pride of something good in us is good, but it may be missing a secret ingredient that can bring deep joy. It may be satisfying, but real joy is available.

Let’s pretend for a moment

Our self analysis can be inaccurate. We may not be as good of a boss as we think; we may not be the independent thinker we hope; we may more of a jerk than we admit.

But let’s pretend for a moment that our trait is every bit as good as we believe.

We also may not be as free from conceit as we like to believe. We may be a bit smug—maybe even arrogant—about our hard-working character.

But let’s pretend for a moment that we are simply content with it.

We also may be infected with “comparison-itis,” where pride comes from being better than others; where it’s not our leadership ability itself that satisfies, but only being a better leader than others.

But let’s pretend we are simply satisfied with what we have without comparison.

Even this purest form of good pride may be missing the key ingredient that brings joy.

My knife

A couple years ago a friend gave me a Smith & Wesson® knife as a surprise gift. I liked it and was sort of proud to have it, proud in a good sense I think. I’m a guy, knives are cool, and now I had an especially cool knife.

I think my analysis of the knife was accurate—it was a cool knife; I don’t think I was smug about owning it, I was just pleased with it; and I don’t think I compared my knife to friend’s knives—theirs may have been better or worse; I didn’t know or care.

Having this knife brought me great joy. (Okay, maybe just a little joy. But joy.)

Because it was a gift. It wasn’t repayment; he didn’t owe me anything; I hadn’t done anything to deserve the gift. His gift was just a gift. He had thought of me, then he had seen this knife, and he gave it to me as a gift.

And the secret ingredient is there

I have three other knives. They may be better or worse knives. I don’t know. But this new knife has a unique characteristic that makes it special. It was an undeserved, unrequested, no-strings-attached gift.

The freely given nature of the gift produced a heart sense of gratitude, and the gratitude produced joy. Pure joy. Real joy. Something that can’t be taken from me. Someday I may lose the knife—or it may be stolen or damaged—but the joy can’t ever be taken.

The part of my joy that rose from the “free gift” will exist long after the knife is gone.

Growing our joy

Let’s think back to the thing we are proud of (assuming we have it to the degree we think, and assuming we aren’t conceited and we aren’t comparing).

There is a common assumption that joy (or greater self-esteem) develops from having deserved something, as in, “I worked really hard and that’s why I’m the boss,” or “I’m a really good parent and that’s why my kids are so obedient.”

This “joy” is fragile and dangerous. It’s fragile because we could lose our job tomorrow, or our kids may rebel. And then where is our joy? And it’s dangerous because it can easily lead to smugness or conceit, as in “Why don’t others work as hard as I do?”

But when everything is a gift—something freely given out of love—we can be grateful and joyful. After all, even our ability to work hard (or be a good parent) was just a gift. We did nothing to deserve our “hard working” character. But God gave it as a gift.

Giving and Gratitude deepen relationships

My relationship with my friend is deeper because he freely gave me a gift as an expression of his love. No strings attached, just his giving and then my gratitude.

Even more, our relationship with the Father deepens as we simply recognize all the gifts he gives. In fact, the more we acknowledge his gifting, the more joy we have, and the more joy we have, the more things we can acknowledge are his gifts.

Isak Dinesen wrote, “Good pride is faith in the idea God had when he made you.” As we see each element in our lives as a gift—our gender, where we were born, our family, our unique mixture of skills and personality—we accept, find gratitude, and soon we rejoice.

Everything we have is a gift, even—if we dare admit it—the greatest difficulties. Understanding the “giftedness” of everything can change our lives.

By the way Gerry, in case I never said it, thanks for the knife. It’s really cool.


P.S. I’ve been reading a fabulous—even life changing—book on gratitude called, One Thousand Gifts. I cannot recommend it (or thank the author) enough. It’s a gift.


14 Responses to Why Do Even Our Best Things Fail To Bring Joy?

  1. nickgronow says:

    Great post Sam, thanks! What a mindset change! Attitude changes like this seem so subtle, but make all the difference in the world.

    • Hi Nick,

      The book that I endorse (One Thousand Gifts) has been amazing. It is the best book on thankfulness I’ve ever read.

      And it got me thinking about components of joy, and I’ve come to believe completely that Gratitude may be the greatest element; it’s not just a spice, it is a main ingredient.

      Along the way, I’m learning–ever so slowly–to be grateful; I’m learning–ever so slowly– to SPOT the gifts in my life.


  2. lymanbrown says:

    Good word, Sam. Gave me just the boost I needed this morning to get going with my day. Thanks for the gift.

  3. Bob Cain says:

    Beautiful, Sam. You know you’re gifted at this, don’t you. We’re thankful for you.

  4. Richard McAlister says:

    Hey Sam, What a perfect “gift” you have given just in time for Thanksgiving. When the knowledge of God’s love makes that drop from our heads to our hearts there is no better gift. It is like going down a water slide. When you hit that cool pool at the bottom there is nothing more exciting more exhilarating and more joyful.

  5. Thanks Sam, great quote and very encouraging insight that helps me today.

  6. Timm says:


    Thank you for this. One of these days I will get around to reading that book.

    I have learned (the hard way), that thanksgiving is not just an attitude of the heart for those who SHOULD be grateful. Like faith, thanksgiving is a gift. It isn’t automatic just because the Bible speaks of it.

    Abba allowed me to get low enough where I appreciate small things…like the ability to wake up and breath the breath of life. Gratitude is a side-effect of surviving cancer. And I say “small things” tongue-in-cheek. In the past, I might have awakened with an attitude of “Oh great, another shitty day in this messed up world.” (I’m being polite here.) In the past, my circumstances would be impetus for my condemning heart, Now, Abba gently reminds me of my deliverance. It is impossible to live a single day without noticing the need for HIs deliverance.

    I am truly grateful. He paid a huge price that we may be able to give thanks.

    Happy Thanksgiving,

    • Timm,

      Thanks for the great observations, “Like faith, thanksgiving is a gift.”

      I like what you said for two reasons (at least). First, we can’t drum it up on our own, we really need God’s help. Second, we can be grateful even for the ability to be grateful. It’s one more think to thank God for,

      Thanks for the great comment,


  7. Wow, the analogy you use is spot on, another fantastic post Sam. I have always loved story telling that involves parables and you nail it every time. Thank you for another post that will have me thinking late into the night.

    • Hi Vanessa,

      Fortunately, it is still morning Down Under, so maybe you’ll get it out of your head by nightfall 🙂

      By the way, I think your blog, and your articles, and your approach to handling your past are brilliant. Really. I love the smarts in taking time to sort it all out. Almost no one does, and almost everyone should.



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