Humor, happiness and faith

June 6th, 2017


When “Happy,” Pharrell Williams’s 2013 pop hit, comes on the stereo, my mood changes entirely. The lyrics by themselves are rather ho-hum when viewed as poetry. Lines like “It might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say / Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break” and the constant refrain “Because I’m happy” are certainly pleasant, but not necessarily mood-changing. The power of the song comes from its energy — the clapping, toe-tapping, smiling-from-ear-to-ear energy. In short, it’s optimistic. Shortly after the song’s release, the youth at my church wanted to use it as their processional song on Youth Sunday. Pharrell struck a nerve, a happy chord in the midst of a 24–7 news cycle that’s always outraged and always on edge. In such an environment, it’s truly a challenge simply to be happy.

It can be easy to accuse those who are happy of being Pollyanna-ish, as if they were blindly strolling along their merry way while ignoring the pressing troubles of the world. But humor and laughter, the signs of happiness, are not inappropriate at times of discord. They can even be necessary. Abraham Lincoln, who certainly lived in troubled times, famously used humor to offset the grimness of his world. In Elton Trueblood’s biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: Lessons in Spiritual Leadership, the author writes, “The key to Lincoln’s famous employment of humor is not that he failed to appreciate the tragic aspects of human existence, but rather that he felt these with such [keenness] that some relief was required.”

Though we often perceive happiness as something dictated by favorable events and circumstances, a deeper reservoir of happiness, beyond health and wealth, can transcend momentary swings of fortune. Psychologists are discovering that this kind of happiness is deeply beneficial. In an article for Psychology Today titled “What Happy People Do Differently,” Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd B. Kashdan state, “The fever for happiness is spurred on, in part, by a growing body of research suggesting that happiness does not just feel good but is good for you — it’s been linked to all sorts of benefits, from higher earnings and better immune-system functioning to boosts in creativity.”

They go on to say that while happiness is partly an emotional response, that’s not the entire story. Though our levels of happiness may swing back and forth due to circumstances, and while we may get a boost of happiness from good events in our lives, we generally have a “natural set point, like a thermostat,” for our basic sense of contentedness and peace. This “set point” transcends the ups and downs of our lives. This basic sense of contentedness that stays stable despite our circumstances is what we often describe in faith as a feeling of wholeness, as shalom. This is, as the apostle Paul describes it, “the peace of God that exceeds all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Keys to happiness

In an article titled “Can You Make Happiness a Habit?” Leo Babauta lays out a process for how to achieve happiness in its purest form. He lists four items that can be summarized as: gratitude, helping others, meditation, and exercise.

Gratitude — The apostle Paul encourages us to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4, NRSV) as a means of appreciating the many gifts we’ve been given in life. The intentional practice of expressing gratitude to God and others makes it possible to see the blessings, gifts and good things we’ve received, even in times of difficulty. Without this practice, we can become blind to these blessings when the challenges of life cloud our view. Babauta writes that he and his wife have made it a practice to share three good things about their day with each other every evening.

Helping others — When we make a point of helping others, our worldview is expanded, and we allow ourselves to see beyond our own situations and difficulties. As a young pastor many years ago, I learned that when the challenges of ministry threatened to overwhelm me, doing something good for someone else would help to change my outlook and my mood. Often, this took the form of visiting with one of our homebound members, but it could have been any small task that presented itself. The important part was spending time and energy on someone else and not on myself.

Meditation — The third key in Babauta’s process of making happiness a habit is meditation. In my own faith journey, a regular cycle of prayer has helped me to feel more centered, at peace, and happy. Prayer also focuses us beyond ourselves, giving attention to our relationship with God. Additionally, intercessory prayer allows us to give attention to the lives of others and the circumstances that they’re enduring.

Exercise — Surprisingly, the fourth key to happiness is exercise. While the first three keys focus on others, exercise focuses on ourselves. About ten years ago, while I was in what I can only describe as a deep funk, I took a step back for some self-examination. One of the changes I implemented was a more regular exercise routine. I began to play basketball two to three times per week. While my basketball skills had diminished with age, my “natural set point” for feeling happy and healthy rose significantly. It made a real difference.

Sonja Lyubormirsky, a researcher at the University of California-Riverside, estimates that 40 percent of our capacity for happiness is within our power to change. These habits can make a difference. If our ability to be happy is like a thermostat, even the few degrees of difference that are under our control can make a huge transformation.

Happy people aren’t always happy

In their article, Biswas-Diener and Kashdan also point out several counterintuitive notions about happiness. Primarily, there is a misconception that happy people will never experience despair or depression. The authors point out that those experiences, while painful in the moment, can lead to reflection and change that can make us happier in the long term. In other words, happiness isn’t just about doing things that make us feel good in the moment but also about what makes us feel more content in the long run.

If we avoid anything that will make us unhappy, even for a moment, we can end up making ourselves more miserable overall. Happy people, instead, are naturally curious and open to new experiences. This involves exposing themselves to the risk of negative experiences. This curiosity and openness can obviously be anxietyproducing, but those who are happy willingly take that risk.

Biswas-Diener and Kashdan go on to say that happy people don’t ignore or push down negative emotions. Instead, happy people use these emotions as a sign to learn and to grow. Once again, that’s a risk-taking proposition, as we may uncover unpleasant or even unhealthy thoughts and emotions within us; but it creates long-term growth.

The joy of faith

Often, Christian people are perceived and portrayed as unhappy and joyless. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus pronounces “peace” upon his disciples when he meets them after his resurrection. This peace, this shalom, represents the happiness and wholeness that comes from following the way of Jesus.

Interestingly, the keys to happiness are very much in sync with the Christian faith. As we grow in our faith, we learn that life is about more than us. We express this through gratitude and service to others, through prayer and self-examination. We also learn that happiness comes not just from doing what feels good in the moment but also in taking the long view on life and working to achieve the work of the kingdom. In summary, a Christian church should be a place where joy is found, laughter is heard, and we can be reminded that happiness is found in something beyond ourselves.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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