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How Happiness Happens: Finding Lasting Joy in a World of Comparison, Disappointment, and Unmet Expectations
by Max Lucado
Learn More | Meet Max Lucado
The Unexpected Door to Joy
It’s 6:00 a.m. in Hamilton, Bermuda. Ninety-two-year-old Johnny Barnes stands on the edge of a roundabout and waves at people as they drive past. He’s been here since before 4:00 a.m. He’ll be here until 10:00 a.m. He’s not asking for money or begging for food. He’s not protesting, complaining, picketing, or loitering.
He’s making people happy.
He wears a straw hat and a salty beard. His eyes are bright, teeth white, and skin leathery and dark. The years have bent his back and slowed his step. But they haven’t siphoned his joy. He waves with both hands extended in front of him. His wrists turn from side to side as if he were adjusting the volume on a soundboard.
He pulls back his right hand to retrieve a kiss and blow it in the direction of a taxi driver or commuter.
“I love you!” he shouts. “I’ll love you forever!” “Hello, there, darlin’. I love you!”
And they love him! Bermudans call him Mr. Happy Man. They route their morning commute to see him. If Johnny’s not standing in his spot, people call the radio station to check on him. If he happens to miss acknowledging some commuters, they often circle the roundabout until he waves at them. One morning a cranky woman determined not to make eye contact with him. She wanted to wallow in her bad mood. But she ended up looking his way. When he smiled, she smiled.
Another sour attitude bit the dust.
Johnny’s philosophy is simple. “We human beings gotta learn how to love one another. One of the greatest joys that can come to an individual is when you’re doing something and helping others.”1
Wouldn’t you love to meet a person like him?
Better still, wouldn’t you like to be like him?
How long has it been since you felt a level of contagious, infectious, unflappable, unstoppable happiness? Maybe your answer is “I feel that way all the time.” If so, God bless you. (And consider passing on this book to someone who needs it.) For many, perhaps most of us, the answer is “Well, it’s been a while. I used to be happy, but then life took its toll.”
“The disease took my health.”
“The economy took my job.”
“The jerk took my heart.”
And as a result something pilfered our happiness. It can seem such a fragile thing, this joy. Here one day. Tomorrow scattered by the winds of a storm.
Still we keep searching for it, longing for it, this sense of contentment and well-being. Worldwide, people profess that happiness is their most cherished goal.2 The most popular class in the three-century history of Yale University is on happiness.3 Magazine covers promise everything from sexual happiness to financial contentment. I googled “happy hour,” and in one second seventy-five million options invited my click.
Marketing companies get this. Television commercials make grand promises: Want to be happy? Buy our hand cream. Want some joy? Sleep on this mattress. Desire a dose of delight? Eat at this restaurant, drive this car, wear this dress. Nearly every advertising strategy portrays the image of a joy-filled person, even the advertisement for Preparation H. Before using the product the guy scowls as he sits. Afterward he is the image of joy. Perhaps the H stands for happy?
Happiness. Everyone craves it.
And everyone benefits from it. Happy people enjoy higher odds of a strong marriage, lower odds of divorce, and superior work performance. They are also healthier, resulting from a bolstered immune system.4 In one study researchers found a correlation between happiness and fatter pocketbooks.5 An analysis of twenty-five studies indicated that happy people are more effective leaders than Debbie Downers.6 Happiness, it turns out, helps everyone.
But fewer people are finding it. Only one-third of Americans surveyed said they were happy. In the nine-year history of the Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, the highest index was 35 percent. This means a cloud of perpetual grayness overshadows two out of three people.7 Smiles are in short supply. By some estimates clinical depression is ten times more rampant now than it was a century ago.8 The World Health Organization forecasts that by the year 2020 “depression will become the second leading cause of disease worldwide.”9
It used to be that older people were happier. People in their sixties and seventies generally scored higher in the areas of contentment and appreciation of life. That has changed. Age does not seem to bring the satisfaction it once did.10
How can this be? Education is accessible to most. We’ve made advancements in everything from medicine to technology, yet 66 percent of us can’t find an adequate reason to check the yes box on the happiness questionnaire.
Are genetics to blame? Not to the degree one might think. Heredity may influence as much as 50 percent of our disposition. Even if this number is accurate, that leaves the other 50 percent under our purview.11
What’s up? How do we explain the gloom? While the answers are varied and complex, among them must be this idea: we are using the wrong door.
The oft-used front door to happiness is the one described by the advertising companies: acquire, retire, and aspire to drive faster, dress trendier, and drink more. Happiness depends on what you hang in your closet, park in your garage, mount on your trophy wall, deposit in your bank account, experience in your bedroom, wear on your wedding finger, or serve at your dining table. Happiness happens when you lose the weight, get the date, find the mate, or discover your fate. It’s wide, this front door to happiness.
Yet for all its promise it fails to deliver.
In a classic study psychologists determined that recent winners of the Illinois State Lottery were no happier than recent accident victims who were consequently disabled. The two groups were asked to “rate the amount of pleasure they got from everyday activities: small but enjoyable things like chatting with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast, laughing at a joke, or receiving a compliment. When the researchers analyzed their results, they found that the recent accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners.”12
Even the thrill of winning the lottery wears off.
More money makes truly poor people happier insofar as it relieves pressure from everyday life—getting enough to eat, having a place to live, affording medical care. But once people reach the middle-class income level, even big financial gains don’t yield much, if any, increase in happiness.13 Americans who earn more than $10 million annually report a happiness level only slightly higher than the blue-collar workers they employ.14 As one Harvard professor said, “We think money will bring lots of happiness for a long time, and actually it brings a little happiness for a short time.”15
We’ve all seen happy peasants and miserable millionaires, right?
There is another option. It requires no credit card, monthly mortgage, or stroke of fortune. It demands no airline tickets or hotel reservations. It stipulates no PhD, MD, or blue-blood pedigree. Age, ethnicity, and gender are not factors. Balmy climates, blue skies, and Botox are not mandated. No resources for psychoanalysis, plastic surgery, or hormone therapy? No problem. You don’t have to change jobs, change cities, change looks, or change neighborhoods.
But you might need to change doors.
The motto on the front door says “Happiness happens when you get.” The sign on the lesser-used back door counters “Happiness happens when you give.”
Doing good does good for the doer.
Research bears this out.
When volunteers were put in a functional MRI scanner and were told they would be giving some of their money to charity, the areas of their brains associated with pleasure—like food and sex—lit up like Christmas trees. Giving to help others triggers dopamine.16 (New fund-raising slogan perhaps?)
In another study a team of social psychologists distilled happiness factors into eight common denominators. Two of the first three involve helping others. Happy, contented people “devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.” And “they are often the first to offer a helping hand to co-workers and passers-by.”17
Seeking joy? Do good for someone else. A tender example of this truth came my way just today. I met with a husband and daughter to plan the funeral of the wife and mother. Patty was the picture of unselfishness. We tried to imagine how many kids she had hugged, diapers she had changed, children she had taught, and hearts she had encouraged. To see her smile was to see springtime thaw the winter ice.
Three months ago a brain condition had left her unable to speak, partially paralyzed, and living in a rehabilitation center. Her spirits sank so low she did not want to eat and had trouble sleeping. One evening her daughter had an idea. She placed her mother in a wheelchair and rolled her from room to room, looking for people who needed encouragement. It didn’t take long.
Though unable to speak, Patty could touch and pray. So she did both. She patted other patients and then placed her hand on their hearts and bowed her head. For the better part of the evening, she touched and prayed her way through the rehab center. That night her appetite returned, and she slept peacefully.
The words of Jesus are spot-on: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Because when you do, it has a boomerang effect. Happiness happens when we give it away.
This is such great news. You can’t control your genetics. You aren’t in charge of the weather, the traffic, or the occupant of the White House. But you can always increase the number of smiles on our planet. You can lower the anger level in your city. You—yes, you—can help people to sleep better, laugh more, hum instead of grumble, walk instead of stumble. You can lighten the load and brighten the day of other human beings. And don’t be surprised when you begin to sense a newfound joy yourself. That’s what this book is about: the unexpected door to joy.
And standing at the entryway to welcome you is Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was accused of much, but he was never ever described as a grump, sourpuss, or self-centered jerk. People didn’t groan when he appeared. They didn’t duck for cover when he entered the room.
He called them by name.
He listened to their stories.
He answered their questions.
He visited their sick relatives and helped their sick friends.
He fished with fishermen and ate lunch with the little guy and spoke words of resounding affirmation. He went to weddings. He was even placed in charge of the wine list at a wedding. He went to so many parties that he was criticized for hanging out with rowdy people and questionable crowds. Thousands came to hear him. Hundreds chose to follow him. They shut down their businesses and walked away from careers to be with him. His purpose statement read “I came to give life with joy and abundance” (John 10:10 THE VOICE). Jesus was happy and wants us to be the same.
When the angels announced the arrival of the Messiah, they proclaimed “good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10 RSV), not “bad news of a great duty.” Scripture has more than twenty-seven hundred passages that contain words like joy, happiness, gladness, merriment, pleasure, celebration, cheer, laughter, delight, jubilation, feasting, blessing, and exultation.18 Our joy level matters to God.
This is no call to naivete or superficial happy talk. Jesus spoke candidly about sin, death, and the needs of the human heart. Yet he did so with hope. He brought joy to the people of first-century Palestine. And he wants to bring joy to the people of this generation, and he has enlisted some special agents of happiness to do the job. You and me.
Not an easy task. The people in our world can be moody, fickle, and stubborn. And that just describes my wife’s husband. If we are going to find the joy that comes through giving joy away, we need a plan. We need instruction. No wonder the Bible has so much to say about finding joy in the act of sharing it. The New Testament contains more than fifty “one another” statements, practical principles for making happiness happen. I’ve condensed them into a list of ten.
- Encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11).
- Bear with one another (Eph. 4:2).
- Regard one another as more important (Phil. 2:4).
- Greet one another (Rom. 16:16).
- Pray for one another (James 5:16).
- Serve one another (Gal. 5:13).
- Accept one another (Rom. 15:7).
- Admonish one another (Col. 3:16).
- Forgive one another (Eph. 4:32).
- Love one another (1 John 3:11).
Let’s open the door to each of these “one another” passages and embark on a happiness project. I’m thinking you will discover what the Bible teaches and research affirms: doing good does good for the doer.
You and I indwell a lonely planet. Broken hearts populate every office building. Discouragement mummifies countless lives. The world is desperate, yes, desperate, for a cavalry of kindness. We cannot solve every problem in society, but we can bring smiles to a few faces. And who knows? If you brighten your corner of the world and I do the same in mine, a quiet revolution of joy might break out.
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