I was asked to give a talk a few weeks back: how to keep your ‘Be Happy’ new year’s resolution longer than February.
The original topic given to me to talk about was Hot Tips to Happiness. I pondered discussing great cocktails and great sex but decided while the audience (non-Christian parents dropping their kids off at a church-run summer event) might enjoy it, it likely wasn’t the best context to discuss gin and g-spots…
But being happy seems to be the goal nowadays. Do X, achieve Y, add in a dash of Z and, ta-da, happiness! Working at RedBalloon a few years ago, the tag line was “Creating A Happiness Revolution.” In RedBalloon’s case, at least it wasn’t the pursuit of buying stuff that made you happy…rather the pursuit of experiences, doing things – either solo or with friends and family – that delivered happy. Yet it’s still external. Still a pursuit.
Being happy isn’t as easy as it’s advertised.
Our economy is geared up for happy: in advertising, brands want to be associated with smiling, laughing, happy customers, and positivity has been shown to increase sharing and engagement on social media. Billboards tell us to open a coke, open happy! Don’t worry, be happy. Lose weight, marry someone who looks and behaves like Hugh Jackman… these are all things we’re told can make us happy (I’m waiting to test out the Hugh Jackman theory.. just as part of research, you understand).
We see happy, we connect with it, and we all go, yes, I want that. And the mistake we can make is thinking that happiness is something that can be pursued. If I just pay off my debts, I’ll be happier. Get that red dress, I’ll be happier. Have a cleaner house (by the way, no-one lies on their death bed saying they wished they’d spend more time cleaning!).
C.S Lewis, of Narnia fame, once described suffering as God’s megaphone. When my Mum died six years ago, when I was grieving her, I was very aware of what I was experiencing internally. To go off and find happy externally seemed to make a mockery of what I was feeling inside. It made no sense to look at happiness as an external pursuit. If sad was in my heart, then happiness, it’s opposite, must be in there too.
Proverbs 15:15 says this:
A miserable heart means a miserable life;
a cheerful heart fills the day with song.
So how do we go about encouraging our hearts to be cheerful? Below are some some good daily habits, and then I’m going expand on one area that gets insufficient attention.
Take a daily thank you walk – “Feel blessed and you won’t be stressed” – what you pay attention to that grows. What do you give thanks for every day?
Talk to yourself – Not the naggy, unkind voice we can too often use. Remind yourself of the lovely truths about yourself. Me, I came to a faith in Jesus a few years ago and that really gave me a new perspective on how to talk to myself. In the Bible God tells me that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made and that God’s works are wonderful. Who am I to disagree with God? When you talk kindly to yourself, when you share God’s perspective on yourself, there’s an immense amount of love and happiness that comes with that.
Get more sleep – a great night’s sleep cannot be replaced by a double latte.
Don’t waste your energy on negative things. Gossip. Your past. Stuff you can’t change. Forgive yourself, and others, admit your mistakes and ask forgiveness of others too.
Love, serve and care – For centuries, the greatest thinkers have suggested the same thing: Happiness is found in helping others. Jesus said it is better to give than to receive. Through MRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain—and it’s pleasurable.
You don’t need me to tell you five tips, or ten steps, to daily happiness habits. We’ve got google for that! I did it when writing this: how to have a happy life. I got about 14 articles per page, and by page 18 of Google I’d stopped pressing ‘Next’. But there were plenty more. Hundreds if not thousands of articles on how to be happy.
But we’re not. In any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety. I suffered from it, and I’m sure everyone knows at least one person. It’s on the rise.
So for all the self-help articles, for all the hints and tips out there, ‘being happy’ must be – if you look at the stats – hard. Or are we looking at it the wrong way?
What if it isn’t about self-help?
For all those articles I googled, the one thing I noticed – Jesus didn’t pop up once. He didn’t get a mention as a way to happiness. Yet the 5 tips above, they can all be traced back to Jesus. Even getting more sleep – like the time in Mark 4, when he and the disciples are in a boat when there’s a massive storm, Jesus is fast asleep in the bottom of the boat, the disciples are panicking, yelling “How can you sleep?! We are going TO DIE”.
How can Jesus sleep? He sleeps because he’s assured of His Father in heaven. Sleep, prayer, thankfulness, forgiveness – these are ways of happiness –– they are all ways that Jesus modelled not because of SELF-help. But because of His trust and the love of his Father in heaven.
And that’s the same for all of us. It’s not about SELF-help, but God’s help.
The Bible has plenty in it about happiness, but defines it differently than our culture. The happiness the Bible advocates isn’t dependent on circumstances. The words for “bless” and “blessed” in both the Old and New Testaments means “well-being,” “flourishing,” and “happiness.”
It is used throughout the Psalms and Proverbs to describe the happy state of those who live wisely according to God’s design.
Four years ago, I wasn’t a Christian. In fact, I’d done the self-help, new age thing for over a decade. Courses, crystals, books (I even went to a church that channeled an alien) – you name it, I tried it. Searching for happiness. There was always another course, another book.
And then I met Jesus – and may I say, I have never been happier. Augustine (one of the great early church theologians and a wild man before he met Jesus) said a lot of pretty fantastic things. This is one: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts find no rest until they find their rest in you.’
In Jesus, I have found rest, peace, contentment – happiness – no matter what the external world throws at me.
And, unlike that external pursuit of happiness, of striving, God says STOP.
God says, YOU don’t have to do all the work to be happy. No. I’m pursuing YOU. I love every hair on your head. I sang over you as you knit together in your mother’s womb.
With God’s love and gift of Jesus, there are no rules to get right, no external things to chase. No ladder of rights and wrongs you have to climb up to reach God.
Instead, in Jesus, you meet the God who came down the ladder. Pursuing us. He became human, lived the sinless life we could not, died the death we deserved, then rose again – all in order to ensure a close, forgiven relationship with us. Through faith. And Grace. Nothing else.
Being loved like that, being redeemed by that, no matter what, gives you an incredible blank canvas each day of love, trust and happiness. Jesus died and overcame death for me so I could be in right relationship with God.
And His love is where true happiness and flourishing comes from.
A lovely new friend said to me recently, after she’d gotten to know Jesus, “Phil, it sounds mad, but even the trees seem greener!” It’s not mad – it’s the right order of things. A relationship with God, through Jesus, means we flourish. And when we flourish, happiness is a natural by-product. Psalm 1 tells us that in relationship with God we are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fresh fruit, always in blossom. Happy.
I want to close with something that Jesus said that resonated strongly with me when I was seeking happiness. You see, we put so much effort in trying to achieve happiness, we can just end up exhausted. Jesus said this in Matthew’s Gospel, and I’m using a more modern message translation as it really speaks into how harried we can become pursuing happy:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
If you’re tired out by this pursuit of happiness, and you like this idea of blossoming, flourishing with ease, without the stress and effort, try hanging out with the Jesus-fella for a while. And if you don’t know where to start, drop a comment below and I’ll do my best to help.