Creating Space for Happiness and Why it Matters More than Ever
From the Monday Mission, October 26, 2020
While running errands in the car with my teenager one day, I was cracking up at something she had said, and she responded with, “You’ve been laughing more lately.”
And I immediately stopped laughing because the comment sobered me. I hadn’t thought much about how my happiness, or lack thereof, affected my children and their experience of me and our home.
As I reflected on the previous months, I realized she was right. I was happier and it was reflected in my ability to laugh more easily and have more fun with my kids. I was immensely grateful because that particular emotion didn’t come easily to me.
As a good Christian I believed in “joy,” what I saw as the stodgier kind of contentment that would last forever and ever Amen. Joy didn’t necessarily smile much or laugh at silly things. Joy was my birthright as a Christian but not happiness. I thought that I was one of those people who would be always be grounded and secure but is certainly missing the HAPPY gene (the one that makes you the life of the party).
I want to float a theory based solely on observation and a lifetime of sitting in spitting distance of a pastor —
Happiness is overrated in general society.
Happiness is underrated in the church.
Has that been your experience as well?
Modern culture encourages us to prize and pursue the feeling of happiness, sometimes at the expense of more worthy goals. (For example, “My marriage doesn’t make me happy anymore, so it’s time for me to move on to greener pastures.”) But in the church we often hear that contentment should be enough, we should expect suffering more so than happiness, and that happiness is frivolous.
I can’t help but wonder if that sentiment was created by people who hadn’t felt very happy themselves. If we’re honest with ourselves, is there really much difference between the two? Is there not emotion involved with both? Is there not pleasure involved with both?
I disagree with the idea happiness is somehow a lesser thing.
Happiness Must Be a Gift from God
The other day when I kayaked out over glassy waters with my daughters, all I could think was “God made this for me to enjoy today.” I felt so overwhelmed by the love of that gesture. Happiness flowed easily.
That is just one example of how I see God valuing our experience in this world, and not just what we produce or how Godly we become. John 15 talks about Jesus dwelling in us so that not only do we have his joy, but that our joy is full. That doesn’t sound like stodgy contentment to me, but something sweeter, more akin to our definition happiness.
God values joy, and if we feel only forced contentment, then we’re missing out on a good gift.
It has become more apparent to me that God, as the author of all good things, must have created this emotion for us, even while encouraging us to stay the course in life no matter what emotions we feel.
The Value of Happiness
Let’s consider the fruitfulness of happiness in the human life. Happiness can lift depression, even if it’s temporary. Happiness sparks our creativity, breathes new life into the drudgery of work, and gives us energy. It is well documented that happiness boosts our physical well being and is correlated with better health. Happiness increases our positive feelings about our relationships and the general state of our lives.
This doesn’t sound like something ungodly or frivolous. This sounds life giving and sustaining.
If you had asked me a handful of years ago, I would have said that happiness comes from circumstances and that joy is something we choose despite our circumstances. I don’t think that’s a terrible idea. The problem is I was settling for something less than happy or joyful as I waited for my circumstances to improve.
It wasn’t joy I was experiencing but unhappiness disguised as spiritual contentment.
And as you know, if you are waiting for circumstances to improve you might be waiting a lifetime. Some of us live with chronic, incurable pain. Or special needs kids. Or difficult marriages. Or financial struggles. Or a stew of hard things that we are not sure we will ever be rid of.
Oh friends, that is exactly why we need happiness.
Where We Find Happiness
But I’m not suggesting we pursue it outright. The things we think will bring us happiness aren’t really the things that do the trick. Happiness is a manifestation of other good things in our lives. Here are some examples. For me, I feel happier when I’m working on projects that feel meaningful. I feel happier when I am intentionally choosing gratitude. And I feel happier when my mind is calm and not anxious. (Some of it is momentary and some of it lingers, but I will take it in any form.)
Each of the circumstances I mentioned are correlated with my happiness. But pursuing happiness itself would not get me there. It’s more of a byproduct of goodness, fruitfulness, and gratitude in our lives. And what makes us happy is unique to each person.
In the time of Covid-19 can we agree that happiness can be harder to find? But let’s not make the assumption that just because there is suffering in the world that it is wrong for us to rejoice in the good things we find around us. Or assume that because there is suffering in our own lives, there is no happiness to be found.
For starters, we can always look to creation, where God shows off his handiwork, for inspiration. In fact we can hang out for awhile on all of the things He has done for us that have nothing to do with our circumstances. We can make space for the activities and healthy choices that improve our sense of happiness.
I can’t say I’m happy all the time and I don’t think that would be a realistic goal. But I do value the emotion and what it brings to my life and my family more so than in the past. I fight off that slow slide into depressive feelings and thoughts by doing the things that will lift my mood. I choose to see the joyful things around me and to laugh as much as possible.
I am just scratching the surface on a broad topic but I think it’s important in this time to not focus on every reason to be disappointed. We should celebrate the wins, enjoy what God is doing in our midst, and create a little space for happiness to flow.
How to Start this Week
- When is the last time you felt truly happy, in either a fleeting moment or a season of life?
- What prompted that? Go back to that moment.
- What small or big thing can you revel in and find joy in today? (You may have to squint to see it but I trust it is there!)
This is my prayer for us: “God help me to remember what you’ve done and carry your joy into the week. When everything is fighting against me, help me to see You in my life and to create space for happiness to flow through me and to others. Amen.”