Happy are the poor in spirit...(Matthew 5:3).
In my last rambling I introduced the question about whether Jesus wants us to be happy. Part of what triggered my thinking about this subject was a new book on the science of happiness called The How of Happiness. Unlike other self-help or positive attitude books, this one is written by a clinical psychologist and is based entirely on hard data obtained in clinical research. It is not a overtly religious book, but the findings of the research made me realize how much of the way Jesus teaches us to live are actually proven strategies for increasing our happiness.
The surprising element of the happiness research is that our circumstances only account for ten percent of our happiness. Ironically, attempting to change our circumstances probably occupies ninety percent of our efforts in trying to be happy. And right from the get-go the book alerts us to the fact the fifty percent of our happiness is genetically determined. By nature, some men and women are just happy campers, while others tend to find happiness elusive. Instead of throwing in the towel because of these findings, the author points out that we control forty percent of how we become happier and that there are proven tactics that can be implemented. This is where a relationship with Jesus comes in for me.
The book talks about twelve happiness increasing strategies. Let me point out three today. Do you want to be happier? Then you need to be more grateful. Working on our gratitude attitude has been proven to increase our level of happiness. Part of following Jesus is obeying his instructions to be a thankful people. Paul wrote, "In everything give thanks, for this is God's will for you, (I Thess. 5:18).
Todays text tells us that poverty of spirit leads to more makarios. Poverty of spirit involves our recognition of our desperate need for God. It is our awareness of our need that drives us to Jesus. When we begin to understand his love for us, and the gift of forgiveness, life, and relationship he offers, it should elicit in us a massive sense of gratitude. As we grow spiritually, we should become more aware and attentive to all the good gifts God gives us. The more grateful we become, the less dissatisfied we will be. The less dissatisfied we become, the more our level of happiness will increase.
The book also points out that learning to forgive can increase our happiness quotient. "How many times should I forgive my brother?" This was a question the disciples asked Jesus. They then suggested what they thought would be a generous answer, "Seven times?". In the Hebrew culture, Jews were taught that they should be willing to forgive someone who offended them three times. The disciples doubled the number and threw in one more, hoping to gain Jesus' approval of their forgiving spirit. But Jesus responded that seven was not the magic number. He said, "Seventy times seven." You get the picture. Holding grievances and increasing happiness don't go together. The release of the negative emotional energy that comes with forgiveness has a positive impact on our happiness. Jesus taught it. Science now validates it.
A third strategy for increasing the level of happiness is doing acts of kindness. A friend of mine started a foundation that was specifically created to help people follow the tip, "Practice random acts of kindness." Kind people are happier. Mean people tend to be unhappy people. Mean people often treat others in unkind ways to improve their circumstances. Whatever benefit comes from the circumstances is far outweighed by the negative impact of being mean. Actively seeking to do acts of kindness on the other hand has been scientifically proven to increase our happiness quotient. In the Bible, kindness is part of the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is manifested in our lives when we allow Christ to be in control and the Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
I will come back later to talk about some of the other nine strategies. But let me point out that when you look at these three strategies for increasing happiness you might realize that happiness is a by-product of certain attitudes and choices we make. It is hard to whip up happiness by seeking to be happy. But if we practice kindness, gratitude, and forgiveness, happiness comes. How about picking one of these three strategies today. If you are going to work on kindness, put a "K" in your hand. If the area of gratitude is where you choose to focus, put a "G" on your hand. If you need to forgive someone, put a "F" on your hand. These are not one-time practices. The idea is to work to make them part of the way we live. Jesus can help us do this. And it seems that what he tells us to do makes us happy. So do you think Jesus wants you happy? I think he does!