Thursday, August 2, 2012

Happiness, Life, and Faulty Substitutes

Happiness depends on many factors, most prominently, nature (genes) and nurture (early childhood experiences). However, there is a growing consensus that the way we live also profoundly affects our mental well-being.

If we live for #1 and abuse others to get what we want, we also abuse our conscience and must harden it so that it will not bite us. This alienates us from both our own humanity and others. However, if we do good to others, we reap satisfaction. One student confided that he used to go to work with an unapproachable scowl between his ears, but then he began doing little acts of kindness to lift the spirits of his co-workers. He now looks forward to going to work.

There are many examples of positive things that can elevate our mental well-being. This very obvious truth has been reaffirmed by countless studies. Researcher Christopher Peterson therefore concludes:

  • Giving makes you feel good about yourself…giving puts meaning into your life. You have a sense of purpose because you matter to someone. (Time, Jan. 17, 2005)
However, there are other positive things that we can do to lift our spirits. University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky lists eight “satisfaction guaranteed” practical suggestions:

  1. Count your blessings.
  2. Practice acts of kindness.
  3. Savor life’s joys.
  4. Thank a mentor.          
  5. Learn to forgive.
  6. Invest time and energy in friends and family.
  7. Take care of your body.
  8. Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardships.

Eventually, I want to evaluate all of these suggestions, but let’s start with “Count your blessings.” Lyubomirsky writes:

  • One way to do this is with a “gratitude journal” in which you write down three to five things for which you are currently thankful – from mundane (your peonies are in bloom) to the magnificent (a child’s first steps). Do this once a week, say, on Sunday night. Keep it fresh by varying your entries as much as possible. (Time)
It’s undeniable that gratitude and the positive thinking that accompanies it will lift the mood. If you doubt it, just do a little thought experiment. Meditate on a painful rejection. Then meditate about someone who loves you. Different set of feelings, right?

However, we are also truth-seeking beings. It is therefore difficult to take comfort in the one person who loves you when the rest of the world rejects you. Likewise, it’s difficult to be grateful that “your peonies are in bloom” if you are terminally ill and have no visitors.

In other words, we don’t have the ability to manipulate our thought life without limit in hope of obtaining joyful feelings. Reality imposes certain constrains upon our hopes and desires.

Consequently, the “gratitude journal” might yield some immediate positive results, but if we aren’t convinced that we have something to be grateful about, the journal will fall to the wayside along with many other self-help interventions.

Instead, gratitude is a powerful force if we are convinced that there is a rational basis for gratefulness. Therefore, if we are terminally ill but are convinced that our sins are forgiven and we are going to heaven, we have a solid and unshakable basis for gratitude.

In conjunction with gratefulness, Lyubomirsky suggests “4. Thank a mentor”:

  • If there’s someone whom you owe a debt of gratitude for guiding you at one of life’s crossroads, don’t wait to express your appreciation – in detail and, if possible, in person.
This can mean a lot to a “mentor,” and you will probably take great pleasure in seeing how much it might mean to him/her. However, this suggestion also has its limitations. For one thing, how many mentors can we have? Not many.

Perhaps we can stretch things a bit and include many others into this category of “mentor” or others for whom we are thankful. However, if begin to express gratefulness, when we really aren’t grateful, we will probably begin to feel like a hypocrite. After all, we would be using another person in a disingenuous way for our own emotional well-being.

Of course, we do this type of thing all the time and justify it, telling ourselves, “Well, I’m not hurting anybody. In fact, I’m making them feel good about themselves.”

This is not entirely true. When we act deceptively, we know it and undermine the very purpose of our deception – to feel better about ourselves. Besides, people aren’t such fools. They can sense our manipulations and will feel uncomfortable with them.

Instead, we must be genuine. However, there is a way to be genuine and continuously thankful at the same time. If we are convinced that we have a God who loves us and will never leave us and is working all things for our benefit, we can be genuinely grateful.

We can also be grateful for the difficult people in our lives. For one thing, as we get closer to God, our eyes open to the fact that we too are difficult people. Therefore, knowing this and the forgiveness of God, we cannot despise anyone. Rather, we can be grateful, knowing that our Lord uses even the difficult people – not just the mentor - and difficult situations to mold us into better people. Therefore, we can honestly tell our family member, “I am grateful that you are in my life. OK, it hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned a lot through you and trust that God has a purpose for putting us together.”

I am glad that “positive psychology” has come to embrace the very principles that are found in the Bible. However, they cannot receive the full benefit of following these principles if they are not related to the Savior. These principles are His principles and cannot be maximally applied without Him.

Similarly, a chainsaw uses great amounts of oil. I found a way to run my chainsaw on used motor oil, which didn’t cost me a cent. However, eventually my chainsaw ground to a halt. It hadn’t been designed to use used motor oil.

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