I’ve been doing the obligatory review of last year. What worked, what didn’t, what needs to change? I don’t do resolutions because I tend to give myself pass or fail grades on those. Then once I fail, forget it. Why bother trying if I already lost? Instead I try to assess and make changes throughout the year. I also try to keep things in small enough, simple steps that I can actually accomplish them. Otherwise I’m easily overwhelmed with too much change at once, and again, I fail. I have 3 things that really worked to make 2018 much happier than my circumstances can explain.
Joy is a state of being. It’s a noun that describes when our mental state is thriving in extreme positivity. It is no surprise that the biggest secret to having more of it in our life has to do with addressing mental attitudes.
Most of us try to adjust our external circumstances in order to produce more joyful experiences. More “me time,” friend-time, weekends, or vacations are the central strategy for more happiness. The problem is that the joy these experiences produce is just as fleeting as the experience. Not only is it impossible to keep circumstances perfect, trying to do so can cause more mental harm than good. In fact, as a mom of 4, the inevitable emotional crash after giddy experiences often had me avoiding extreme emotional highs for my kids. After fun activities, instead of being refreshed, everything became bleak and boring. They pitched fits to get more of whatever fun, whatever assumed joy, they wanted. I found our days slipping into a longing to escape the mundane. Focusing on circumstances had a direct opposite effect than I was hoping for. There was actually less joy.
Joy began to grow the more I intentionally focused our day on gratitude. The feeling of joy undulated in perfect proportion to the effort of focusing on thankfulness. Great days focused on gratefulness and bad days focused on circumstances. If it was a day of bickering and contention, I dropped the ball on encouraging thankfulness.
Interestingly test scores also reflected the day’s gratitude factor. If we were in math class and became completely, mentally stuck to the point of shutting down, a deep breath and “5 things you are thankful for” changed their little minds from shutdown to fully functioning in a matter of moments. It was like magic. The exercise of thankfulness became a habitual part of our day. Any day which skipped the focus on gratitude was a bad school day.
No wonder Paul tells us to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances (Phil. 4:4-14). Thankfulness is an essential habit for mental and emotional health. It focuses our attention back to what is good in life instead of being consumed with what is wrong with our circumstances. This can sometimes be tricky to do when nothing seems to be going right which leads me to the next tool for making life happier.
Learning from everything:
It can be difficult to be thankful when everything seems to be going wrong. When we view everything—good or bad—as an opportunity to learn how better ourselves, it becomes easier to be thankful for difficulty. Difficult circumstances, difficult people, and difficult truths are all an opportunity for growth. They are opportunities to become more competent adults.
Whether you are religious or irreligious Western society has an affinity for the Judaeo-Christian definition of maturity. What we call maturity is directly correlated to how adept we are at acting selfless and loving. When we define mature we think of words like responsible, caring, faithful, loyal, maybe even protective, strong, provider, dutiful. When someone is immature, we may refer to them as a “petulant child.” Why? Because it has been ingrained in us for generations that grownups are supposed to responsibly nurture those under their care. Children pitch fits to get their own selfish way.
Age has very little to do with actual maturity. Instead we look at one’s ability to self-regulate. In other words the better a person is at limiting their need for immediate self-gratification, the more mature we deem that person to be. The greater capacity one has for seeing the big picture on how to care for society and our part in it, the more adult-like one is. We thrive when we are taking responsibility to serve because God created us to rule and reign in his likeness and image (Gen.1:26-28). Mature love is humanity’s whole intended purpose (Matt. 22:37-40).
Most people in the West can recognize that ideally love is supposed to be patient, kind, generous, truthful, protective, hopeful, and persevering, not envious, boastful, proud, dishonoring, selfish, angry, grudging, or vengeful (1 Cor. 13:1-8). We like to be around those who love us and don’t enjoy being around those who are selfish. We can get quite offended when someone doesn’t treat us according to our expectations of love and respect.
Jesus was the perfect example of what true love looks like. Whether you believe in him or not, becoming a loving person is accomplished by becoming more like Christ, self-sacrificial.
Difficulty gives us the opportunity to hone these essential skills of being human. I often think I’m growing more mature when reality is that I just have not tested a certain aspect of my character in a while. Ha! It is very disappointing when the first little bit of pressure that comes along shatters my delusion that I am a good person.
A false sense of maturity is almost worse for joy than no aspirations to grow at all. Adulting with all its various modes of responsibility is hard. But very worth it! Confidence, satisfaction, and pleasure are more long lasting states of being when they are derived from being a competent, loving adult than from being a self-serving, immature circumstance-seeker. When pleasure is associated with ministry rather than moments, it has a sustained release affect. I cannot begin to describe to you the innate joy produced by loving others rather than self-seeking.
Yes, self-care is important. However, you will find taking time to meditate on thankfulness and love (both the love that has been shown to you, and the love you plan to commit today) is more important than simply adjusting circumstances to be temporarily pleasing. Adjusting our attitude and actions to align with God’s idea of maturity is far more beneficial self-care than a fun outing, a hot bath, chocolate, or any other superficial therapy.
Take a breath and list 5 things you are thankful for, then remember your goals (Phil. 3:14). Try to see how your current adversity can be used to push you toward being a better version of you. Every experience, good or bad, is a learning experience that can help you. Which leads me to the last important element of happiness my family concentrated on in 2018,
Take responsibility for your own happiness:
No one else can make you happy. Nothing outside of you can make you happy. There is no set of circumstances perfect enough to sustain joy. Monday is always coming. You and you alone are responsible for your happiness. The less authority you give to the things outside of you to dictate your bliss, the more satisfied you will become.
You might say, “Wait a second, I thought you preach God is the Source of happiness!” He is! But it is up to you to decide if you are going to draw on that Source or on things/people around you to make you happy. If you depend on what is outside of you, you will be perpetually disappointed with life. You can never control life enough to be happy–not circumstances, not people.
Even the most well-meaning people who love you will eventually let you down. It is impossible for them to see everything from your point of view. They are only human after all and can only do their best. At some point they will be unable to predict what would make you happy because it is different than what would make them happy. Eventually the Golden Rule falls short of guiding their actions toward loving you. At some point even the best relationship will hurt. We’re often told we’d be better off without people who let us down. I believe these relationships are still worth the risk and can be the most enjoyable when they’ve been redeemed and put back together with the love of God. Wisdom from God can guide us in these relationships. They are wonderful frosting in life!
If even our best relationships can be painful sometimes, what about difficult people who don’t even try to put us first. What then? Life is pretty miserable the more we allow these people to govern our happiness. The most common advice is to cut these folks from our lives. That might be necessary, but often is too extreme or even impossible for that matter. How can we be near difficult people and keep our joy? Another solution is to limit their influence on our happiness rather than limit our exposure to them. Their demeaning behavior is not a true reflection of our worth, so don’t believe them. Reject that lie while leaving yourself open to learning from them.
It is always a good idea to learn from any source possible—even negative people. One way is to observe what is so irritating about them and avoid acting like them. I’ve found that often what irritates me is something that reminds me of myself. The irritation is more like mild conviction than anything else. It rubs a wound that was already there.
Another way to learn from difficult people is to actually listen to them. See if their words actually hold any meaning. Do an honest inventory. If their rudeness is poorly expressed truth, make adjustments. Difficult people often express their opinion as a disproportionate extreme that reflects a kernel of truth—that’s why it can be so hurtful. They poke at our scabs, the places we already judge ourselves, the places we already experience the pain of insecurity. Look for the nuggets of truth and throw away the rest.
Since it is tricky to differentiate what is true from what is just meanness, you may need to seek a second opinion from someone who loves you that you can trust to be honest. Look for someone who has your best interest at heart, not just someone who is nice. Both truth and grace are important aspects of self-evaluation and growth.
It is important to recognize that no person is able to make a value judgment about our worth as a human being. Neither difficult people nor those who see us for everything we could be have the ability to change our worth one iota up or down. Their value judgments about us are not true unless they are parroting God’s price set on our worth. The price of anything is set by what someone is willing to pay for it. Christ already set our value: we are created in the image of God, and we are worth dying for even on our worst day (Rom. 5:7-8). No one else’s opinion matters (not even our own). Every other opinion is either deficient or exaggerated. We cannot change our value. We cannot increase it or decrease it. The highest price has already been paid. All we can do is agree with it, adjust our lives to it, or not.
I spent almost an entire year wallowing on this fact before I got out of bed each day. It had a phenomenal effect on my life. I didn’t judge myself as harshly because my failures didn’t mean I was worthless. The worth of others also increased because they, no matter their actions, were worth the same as me. I was able to be more gracious toward them and toward myself. I can both admit my faults and still believe I am valuable without cognitive dissonance tearing my psyche apart. I can flatly claim that anyone on the face of the earth is my equal—whether society would put them above or below me is irrelevant.
Rank on any scale we use to measure success is irrelevant to self-worth. Financial scales, social ladders, competency assessments, intelligence quotients, not even moral standards—none of it is relevant to a person’s value, not mine, not yours!
Disconnecting value from any sort of rank allows me to both improve myself and not become prideful or self-loathing. It allows me to embrace needed changes more readily rather than excusing or defending my behavior. It also allows me to not judge others, but to value all humans as much as I value myself. This is one of the most essential elements of joy I have ever discovered.
Rank becomes a tool for self-improvement, not a tool for destruction. It allows me to set goals and appreciate moving forward while not disparaging myself or others for failure.
Our society naturally organizes itself to promote those who are good at a particular thing. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Who wants someone who stinks at the job to be a manager? They are always the worst managers! No, it is fine to promote competence rather than arbitrarily move folks up the ranks.
The issue is that humanity often associates greater value to whomever is at the top of any scale. That is no good for our society for many reasons.
For one, we get a warped sense of our worth. We think when we are doing good, we are good. That’s backward. When we are good, we do good. This is one of the fundamental differences between true Christianity and every other religion. Jesus came to change our state of being which in turn changes our actions. God introduced himself to Moses with his name “I AM.” From his state of being he chooses to act. As we become his “likeness and image,” our state of being changes, and we begin to act more like him. Worth is unchanged by our actions–good or bad.
Another issue with associating greater value with rank is that we tend to associate only in circles where we are climbing to the top of the scale. This deprives us of valuable relationships. We’re stuck in our own bubble where everyone thinks and acts alike. What if we emphasized our similarities instead of our differences? What if intersectionality was focused on ways our similarities could help each other instead of how oppressed we are? What if we found ways to work together to build a better world by utilizing our strengths? That may be a different blog altogether. However, the point is that we must stop allowing comparison with others to value us according to rank, and only use rank as a means of self improvement.
This lack of diversity in relationships leads to missing out on learning opportunities. To avoid the pain of failure, we avoid competing in areas we aren’t good at–areas we could learn valuable lessons. We cannot become the well-rounded individuals we were created to be without the friction of opposition. We lose diversity that having a wide range of interests and viewpoints allows for.
Becoming the best you that you can be is innately satisfying. Not because of ranking your worth, but because becoming what you were created to be is inherently pleasurable.
This pleasure increases all the biological indicators of happiness while decreasing their antagonists. We can literally increase our own dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, melatonin, etc. and decrease our cortisol and other stress related reactions. Through this process joy becomes a tangible, measurable, biological reality. Long term, it can never happen from the outside in, rather it must be attained from the inside out.
Being in charge of this biology is what I teach my kids about drugs, alcohol, and sex rather than inducing curiosity by simply saying “No, no.” Taking any substance or getting a buzz off any experience only increases our need for that substance or experience. We want joy to be a state of being, not an experience.
If my kids are grumpy, we exercise self-regulation to increase our biological indicators of well-being. That may include counting our blessings or doing jumping jacks, saying 5 loving things about a sibling or taking 5 deep breaths, doing a random act of kindness while running laps–usually a combination of physical and mental/emotional actions. I’ll let you know in about 20 years if this strategy worked out. It is, after all, a long term strategy for sustained happiness. (It’s been working for me for the last 16 years or so.)
When we rely on our internal thought process to regulate our biology rather than external things like drugs, alcohol, and social feedback, our ability to create happiness inside of ourselves increases. This is a not skill taught in school, but a skill that can none-the-less be learned. It is essential that we build and improve our ability to increase happiness within ourselves—for our physical health, our mental health, and our emotional health.
Don’t let anything outside of you control your joy, or you will never be able to keep it. Rather than looking for momentary circumstances to induce biological responses, choose sustained lifestyle choices that align with joy so that you don’t need to escape everyday life.
The fullest, long-term joy is only found when God, the Source, is on the inside. He predetermined our value. He alone and no other paid the exact, lofty price for your soul. Therefore, no circumstance, no person, and no truth can diminish our worth. As your Creator, He knows exactly what will make you happy and can teach you how to find it.
Genesis 1 tells us we were created to rule and reign over creation in the image of God. We do this by loving and serving the way Christ taught us to do. Trying to find joy any other way is self-destructive in the long run.
Be thankful, find something to learn from every circumstance—good or bad, and take responsibility for your own happiness.