Thirty-six years ago, I was married on a sunny August afternoon. We listened that day to what I think of as the Happiness Gospel. Jesus says:
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. … Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.
My husband and I are more “plan your work and work your plan” people than lilies of the field. We’ve been slow learners of the Happiness Gospel, but we’ve come around to the view that no matter what our present circumstances, how we view life swings the balance in our happiness way more than what we view.
We’ve noticed that friends returning from mission trips are often amazed that the people they met were so joy-filled. No steady work, no Starbucks—yet joy abounds. For adolescents, this awareness can be eye-opening. In a culture that values the newest iPhone, tablet, and designer label, recognizing that joy is not linked to owning the latest stuff challenges our beliefs about happiness.
I’m delighted to tell you that you don’t have to move to a place without indoor plumbing to find joy! To make the point about what we see, I run an experiment with groups. I tell the group I am going to hold up a paper, an eye chart of sorts, and I ask them to shout out what they see as soon as they recognize what is on the chart. The single piece of paper has a small black dot at the center. Invariably, when I hold up the paper, people bark out “a black dot.”
Our culture trains us to see the black dot. It covers a tiny fraction of the page, yet our focus goes to it immediately. We see the dot and ignore the vast open space around it. Too often, this is how our brains work—we see illness, violence, loss, what is missing, or what we perceive is wrong in our life, and we miss all that is wonderful and possible. Our brain goes into the black hole, searching for problems to fix. And in the process, we miss the splendor of the world around us. To others, we rain worry, not hope.
If we want to change the way we view the world, we have to practice. Practicing gratitude is one of the best and easiest ways to retrain our brain to scan for the happiness in our life.
I’d like to stop and emphasize the word practice. As we come to the end of the Rio Olympics, we are profoundly aware of the practice it takes to become an elite athlete. Yet somehow we tend to believe some people are naturally joy-filled, and others see through the glass darkly. Perhaps. But with practice, all of us can become more joyous.
In his book, “Guide to Stress Free Living”, Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic suggests starting your day by visualizing five gratitudes. Before you get out of bed each morning, bring to mind one person you are grateful for. Inhale the love of this person, exhale gratitude. Inhale your gratitude for five people in your life—it takes less than two minutes, and you start your day with a heart of thankfulness. This is brain training — not in hopes of dodging dementia—but in hopes of enjoying this day you have been given. This is training your brain to scan for what is right in your world.
You already know the opposite of gratitude. Focus on the black dot long enough, and it becomes bigger and bigger in your mind. The obstacles in your life become insurmountable barriers. Life’s difficulties begin to define you. Hope and possibility flee like mist from our breath on a frosty morning.
The realists among us will scoff. They’ll bring up all the people who are tasting misery today in its many flavors, and accuse followers of the Happiness Gospel of naiveté. But the reality is that the Gospel culminates on the Cross. Choosing not to worry didn’t make suffering vanish in Jesus’ life, and it won’t vanquish the worries in ours. Hardly. Worries will always be there for us to attend to. But by seeing and choosing joy, we respond to life with hope that changes those around us, hope that even affects our circumstances.
You’ve probably experienced the feeling of rain in a dry land. Do not worry about your life. Be rain for yourself and for others.