There’s a line in the Christmas carol “O Holy Night” that seems to have been written especially for 2020. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” Yes, after a Summer of racial division, a Fall dominated by a contentious election, nine months into a worldwide pandemic, this is indeed a weary world. But are we rejoicing? As a Christian, I know Jesus desires for me to live a joyful life. Joy, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). In other words, if God’s Spirit lives in me—as I claim—then I should be joyful. We can’t immediately change the conditions of our present world; complain though we might, the pandemic will be with us for several more months, along with the restrictions that go with it. But the Bible makes it clear that the joy He gives us is stronger than our circumstances:
So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. John 16:22
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy. Psalm 16:11
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice! Philippians 4:4
Yet, sad to say, joy isn’t one of the first words people associate with Christians these days. And honestly, I understand. We often seem just as angry, cranky, bitter or whiney as the rest of the population, if not more. It’s hard to persuade people that you bear the Good News when you look miserable. It’s also devastating on a personal level. As Proverbs 17:22 says, A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. We all experience times of sadness, stress or grief. But those should be exceptions. So what’s keeping us from experiencing the joy that God gives? I recently spent some time researching the science of happiness. I found something interesting: The things scientists have discovered which produce long-term, resilient happiness and satisfaction (ie, joy) in people are all things that God commands us to do. Weird, right? So I offer this list of ten habits that will enable you to experience more joy in the coming year.
1. Get more sleep. The best performance-enhancing substance on earth is free and legal. It’s getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Adequate sleep leads to improved brain function, job performance, and overall health…including a longer life span. But it also leads to a better mood. Psychlogist Norbert Schwarz said, “Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.”[i] Scripture takes a balanced approach to the subject of sleep. Proverbs warns us against sleeping our lives away. But Psalm 127:2 says, It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Sleep is a gift from God. Stop binge-watching Netflix and get to bed on time. You’ll thank yourself later.
2. Monitor your media intake. Depression and other suicide risk factors have exploded among American teenagers in recent years. Researchers said the trend started in 2012, the year smartphones first became widely owned. Jean Twenge says research shows that’s no coincidence. In fact, a teenager who spends five or more hours per day on a smartphone is 71 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor.[ii] So how much time on one’s phone is safe? Twenge says an hour or less is the sweet spot; two hours is the point at which the negative effects on one’s brain begin to emerge. Jesus warned us in Luke 11:33, Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. We start to resemble whatever we spend the most time looking at.
But this warning isn’t just for teenagers with smartphones. I know many Christians who are addicted to 24 hour cable news, political websites, and talk radio. This is toxic to your emotional and spiritual wellbeing, in my opinion. Be aware that the business model of each of these media platforms is to keep you watching, listening, or clicking on articles. They do this by stirring up fear and anger. Too much news consumption leaves you feeling the world is on the verge of collapse. Too much political opinion content fills us with the sense that those who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re evil. I read an article a couple years ago written by a Christian whose elderly parents had started watching a cable news network. Before this, they were calm, sweet-natured people. But soon, this man realized that every time he visited his parents, the news was on. And every time he visited, they seemed more paranoid than before. They were obsessed by all sorts of terrifying conspiracy theories. They deeply distrusted their neighbors. It took some convincing, but the man persuaded his parents to turn off the TV. Soon, they were the happy parents he remembered. They actually thanked him for confronting them. Of course, I am not saying we should bury our heads in the sand and ignore current events. But a quick check of headlines in the morning is all the news one usually needs. As for the political discussion we consume so much of, ask yourself the question: “Does this make me more or less likely to love my neighbor?” Try fasting from media for a week or two, and see what it does for your mood.
3. Seek contentment. These days, it’s popular to compile a bucket list: A checklist of places to go, things to accomplish, stuff to own, experiences to have before we “kick the bucket.” I believe bucket lists are joy-destroyers. Research backs me up on that. Arthur C. Brooks, in an article for The Atlantic, sums it up in this equation: “Satisfaction = What you have divided by what you want.”[iii] The more things you put on your list of “must haves” the unhappier you will be. Or as Spanish clergyman Josemaria Escriva put it, “He has most who needs least. Don’t create needs for yourself.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? The more we focus on what we don’t have, the less we will enjoy the blessings we already possess. Too many of us live like a married man with a wandering eye; even if he never physically cheats on his wife, his idealizing of other women will poison his love for his her.
So how do we become content with what we have? In Philippians 4:11-13, Paul wrote I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. To Paul, contentment was a skill that could be learned. But unlike such skills as mastering a foreign language or learning to hit a sand wedge, we need supernatural help with this one. Christ can teach us how to be content. The question is, are we willing to let Him? A great first step is to pray every day, “Lord, I know that if I truly need something, you’ll give it to me. So teach me to be happy with what I’ve been given.”
4. Practice gratitude. The Bible is so full of commands to be thankful, one might think that God is insecure and in need of affirmation. Fortunately, that’s not so. God desires our gratitude because He knows it’s good for us. An article from Harvard Medical School cites one study in which people were asked to write a few sentences about their lives each week. One group was asked to write about things they were thankful for. Another was told to write about irritating or annoying things that had happened to them. The third group was given no instruction on what to write. At the end of 11 weeks, the thankful group showed significantly more optimism and cheerfulness. They also exercised more and reported fewer visits to the doctor. In another study, 411 people were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had been kind to them in the past. The participants reported a huge surge in happiness, greater than any of the more standard psychological treatments. Even three months later, the participants’ brain activity showed that they were mentally healthier than they had been before the experiment. Other studies show that thankful people have better relationships and do a better job motivating employees.[iv]
Here’s one way to bring more gratitude into your life: Every night, before you fall asleep, think of four things you’re thankful for. It could be four good things that happened that day, or four things you’re glad are part of your life. Say a prayer of thanks to God for those four things. I’ve done this before, and it’s a great way to end a day.
5. Serve others. Katherine Nelson-Coffey helped lead a study in which one group was told to do something kind for themselves daily: Get a message, buy something they’ve been wanting, order dessert, spend more time doing things they enjoyed. A second group was told to practice “random acts of kindness”: Visit an elderly relative, pay for someone’s order at a restaurant. A third group was told to do things that help humanity: Volunteer or donate to a charity. Researchers called these “prosocial” activities. At the end of four weeks, the results were striking. Groups two and three reported drastically increased levels of joy and wellbeing. Whereas the group that had spent four solid weeks playing “treat yourself” didn’t enjoy life any more than they had before. This goes against everything we tend to believe. Nelson-Coffey summed up the study, “This research does not say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves, show ourselves self-love when we need it, or enjoy our relaxation when we have it. However, the results of this study strongly suggest that we are more likely to reach greater levels of happiness when we exhibit prosocial behavior and show others kindness through our actions.”[v]
This shouldn’t surprise any follower of Jesus, the one who told us one of the two most important commands was Love your neighbor as yourself. Contrary to what we may think, Christ didn’t say this because He was trying to separate the good people from the bad, or to arbitrarily make life harder for us. He said it because He loves us, and He knows that a life of putting others ahead of oneself is actually much happier than a life consumed with fulfilling our own appetites. Happiness is like a butterfly: The harder you try to catch it, the more it eludes you. But if you take your eyes off of yourself, you will discover to your surprise that joy has landed on you. This is one reason why I’m so excited about our church’s vision of creating transforming relationships. Not only will it serve our community; it will produce greater joy in us. Wake up in the morning and ask God to show you, “Who can I serve today?”
6. Find the meaning and dignity in your work. Brooks, in his Atlantic article, gives another enlightening equation: “Habits (that produce happiness) = Faith + Family + Friends + Work.” We’ll talk about the first three in that equation below. You may be surprised to see work included. But it stands to reason: Once we grow up, we spend more time working than we do anything else. That’s one reason “adulting” seems so hard. Christians especially need to realize that our work is not a curse, it’s a calling. That’s true not just of vocational ministry and charity work, but even tasks we find mundane or miserable (for help unpacking that concept, check this out). I’ve found it helpful to look at my day’s schedule when I first get up, praying over every meeting, assignment and chore on my plate, asking the Lord to help me do these things with wisdom and excellence, knowing He is my true boss.
7. Spend more time with people who love you. These days, when we have time off, we tend to retreat into our own solo bubble, which almost always involves staring at a screen in silence. We tell ourselves this is “me time,” that we’re feeding our souls by getting away from people, with all their messiness and demands. But research shows our isolation is what’s making us unhappy, while time spent with people feeds our souls. Here’s just one example: A study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics found that an increase in the frequency of social involvements was worth an extra $131,000 in actual happiness. They also stated that, “Actual changes in income, on the other hand, buy very little happiness.”[vi]
If you’re an introvert reading this right now, you might be thinking, “Those statistics don’t apply to me.” Actually, they do. Your circle of life-giving people is probably smaller than mine, but you need interaction with them, nonetheless. So start saying yes to those invitations to Life Group parties. Play board games or go on a walk with your family instead of turning on the TV. Go visit your parents more often. Set a rotating schedule of friends to meet for lunch once a week.
8. Make relationships right. One of our biggest sources of stress is conflict in our relationships. As a pastor, I see so many people who live in a constant state of relationship drama: Betrayal by so-called friends, gossip in the office, toxic employers, longstanding family feuds, custody battles between ex-spouses, friendships collapsing because of one thoughtless word or action. I’m willing to bet most of you reading this right now have at least one relationship in your life that makes your stomach churn. In many of those relationships, you know that there is something you could do to make things better between you and that other person; an apology to offer, forgiveness to extend, a gentle conversation to be had. But everything within you says “Don’t do it!” Why? Anger and bitterness are, in a strange way, very satisfying. You feel validated when you have an enemy. You tell your friends stories of the awful things she has said or done, and they all shake their heads, agreeing that you are the victim of supreme injustice. You have imaginary conversations with your enemy, in which you tell him exactly how you feel, and he is left speechless with shame.
Frederick Buechner puts it memorably: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.” But he also acknowledges that anger, as fun as it may be, is deadly: “The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” This is why Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Again, He wasn’t trying to make life hard for us. He loves us, and wants the best for us. He knows that making things right with our enemies is a way to bring more joy to our lives.
I believe this world would be a much happier place if more of us would follow Romans 12:18: If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with all people. Note the first two words: “If possible.” Sometimes, no matter what we do, some people will hate us. But think about your enemies right now: Have you done everything you can? As far as it depends on you, are you living at peace with everyone? For some of you, the number one thing you can do to experience joy in 2021 is to have an important conversation with someone who you’re currently at odds with, or to begin praying for someone you cannot stand. Neither of those actions is easy. But the joy that comes when you live at peace is palpable.
9. Go to church. Nelson-Coffey says “There is a linear relationship between religious service attendance and happiness.” Note what she says: Simply identifying yourself as a member of a religion doesn’t make you happier. But attending worship services does. Pew Research has found the same thing for years: People who regularly attend worship are much happier than those who are irreligious OR those who are religious, but rarely attend church. This is true in nations around the world.[vii] This is big news to the millions of people who would consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or who have given up being part of a local church, although they still believe in the doctrines of the faith. It turns out that Sunday mornings really do matter. If you’re a believer who has at some point dropped out of active participation in a church, it is worth your time to find a church home again.
Of course, COVID complicates matters. At my church some of our most loyal members feel the wisest course is to avoid in-person church attendance until the pandemic passes, even with all of the safety protocols we’ve put in place. I respect their decision, and I thank God for the technology that enables us to stay connected with them online. But—I want to say this carefully—I also want them to know that online worship is not a permanent replacement for being here in the flesh. It can’t be the “new normal.” That’s not my opinion, by the way. Hebrews 10:24-25 commands, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Notice two things: First, even in the first century, there were people saying, “I don’t need to actually go to worship with other believers.” The author of Hebrews was correcting this false idea. Second, notice why we need worship: He doesn’t say, “Go to church so you can hear a good sermon” or “Gather together so that you can sing worship songs.” He says we are to stir up one another to love and good deeds and encourage each other. Those are things that happen when you are with someone in person. You can listen to preaching on your laptop and sing songs along with us on TV. But in order to encourage one another—and be encouraged—you need to be here. If you’ve stopped coming to church for health reasons, pray and consult your doctor about when to return. We miss you, and look forward to seeing you again when it’s safe.
10. Focus on deepening your faith. Follow my logic for a moment: The Bible says we were made by a loving God as the absolute peak of His creation, the only thing in the universe made in His image. Out of all the billions of living organisms in creation, only we can hear God’s voice, cry out to Him in prayer, and know His presence. He cared so much for you and me, He became a man and died to rescue us, to make possible a personal relationship between us and Him. He didn’t die to redeem any other creature, only us. And God is the source of all joy. God created beauty and laughter, as well as every other pleasant experience in the world, from eating a perfectly cooked steak to kissing the one you love. None of these things is necessary for sustaining life, by the way; He could have kept us alive and reproducing without creating fun and enjoyment. These are gifts from a God of love. And when this God came to earth in the form of Jesus, people—especially irreligious people—couldn’t get enough of Him. They walked for miles to stand in the sun all day listening to Him talk. The religious leaders called Him a drunkard and a glutton because they assumed that a man of such infectious joy must be sinning somehow. If these things are true, then the most important single thing we could do to experience a joyful life is to grow closer to our Creator and Redeemer. As St Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Have you considered what new habits you will form in 2021 to grow in your relationship with God? Most of the suggestions on this list would help, of course. But for sheer spiritual growth, I can’t think of any better habit than reading the Bible daily. It has never been easier to start. Bible apps are available for free. My favorite, Youversion, even allows me to listen as someone else reads the Bible for me. I can have my daily Bible reading while I drive, get ready for work, or exercise. Daily Bible reading plans are available online for free as well: Just search “Bible reading plan” and you’ll get options that allow you to read the entire Bible in a year (ambitious), in three years (easier), or more theme-based options. If you prefer some devotional thoughts to help you understand the Scripture you’re reading, there are tons of options there, too (Click here to see the one I wrote one myself). Or just do this: Open your Bible to Matthew 1, and read that chapter. Tomorrow, read Matthew 2. Continue until you reach the end of the New Testament. Then start with Genesis. For many people, a chapter a day is the perfect amount.
Whatever you do, do something that produces joy in your life. You’ll be glad, and so will everyone you know!