I'm not sure where I first heard the suggestion that Christians need to think…
Cultivating joy through meaningfulness, intimacy, virtue
When I ask my clients what they want from therapy, the number one response is to be happier. Whether they are referring to their work, personal life, or relationships, they all want more joy.
In this season, it’s easy to think that joy is found in the escape. For a few weeks, we throw ourselves into Christmas preparations that lead up to the holiday. We step out of the ordinary time, where we tend to be a little more sensitized to the challenges in our daily lives, and escape into a winter wonderland.
There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes it’s good to step away and get a mental break from our worries and woes. But as we celebrate Gaudete (“Rejoice!”) Sunday, it might be good to look at what research has to say about living joyfully.
Science of happiness
Researchers of positive psychology, the science of happiness, have identified two kinds of happiness. The first, hedonic (pleasure-based) happiness, is the happiness we feel when we do enjoyable things and manage to avoid conflict. The second, eudaemonic (meaningfulness-based) happiness, is the joy we experience when our lives reflect the consistent effort to pursue meaningfulness, intimacy and virtue.
Positive psychologists find that while both kinds of happiness can be beneficial, only people who mainly pursue meaningfulness-based happiness can be said to be truly joyful. Studies show that pleasure-based happiness can be rewarding in small doses, but when it is pursued as a way of life, it tends to lead to poor mental and physical health. People who lean too heavily on getting away from their problems tend to get stuck with their problems piling up. But once the person realizes that as soon as they come back from vacation, girls/guys night out or whatever they do for “me-time,” those breaks become stressful, as their ever-growing pile of problems is waiting for them to get home.
People who pursue eudaemonic happiness, however, make their problems part of their happiness equation. While getting a break from problems can be welcome, they realize you can’t ever completely leave your troubles behind. When they get a break, they use part of that time to look at their problems with fresh eyes. They look for new resources, seek additional support or take some time to plan their next steps. These individuals don’t approach problems as something to escape, but something that challenges them to grow, to strengthen their relationships and lead more proactive lives.
In my book, “Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety” (OSV, $16.95) I talk about the difference between worries/anxiety and concerns. When we are concerned about something, we approach it as a challenge to be addressed. We identify the problem. We bring it to God, and with God’s help we seek resources, identify supports and make a plan for addressing at least the next steps, if not the whole thing at once. By contrast, when we worry or become anxious, we tend to focus on the problem. We don’t make plans, gather resources or get support. We dwell on the bigness of the problem and the inadequacy of us. And when we get tired, we try to run away.
This Advent, let’s embrace the joy that comes from facing our problems head-on. Let’s stop running away from whatever robs our joy and steals our peace. Let’s use the grace of the season to make plans to address our concerns instead of just worrying about them. Let’s reflect prayerfully on the ways we can use our gifts and talents (or get new skills) to respond to our problems. Let’s surrender our pride and ask others for help. Let’s ask God to help us see our problems not as inconveniences to be avoided, but opportunities for growth that can be embraced through his grace.
This Gaudete Sunday, let’s embrace the invitation to pursue true joy by asking ourselves how we can pursue greater meaningfulness, intimacy and virtue in everything, especially our problems. The more we do this, the more we will be able to experience the joy of the Christmas season all year long.