Every once in a while I’ll be in my car driving along or pushing my daughter in her stroller when I get a strange sensation. It often happens when I’m basking in the sunshine of a new spring day or anticipating an upcoming event or simply looking at my daughter.
And then it hits me . . . I’m happy.
Happiness without strings attached. Happiness without anxiety. Happiness in the here and now.
And then, almost inevitably, the anxiety sets in even worse than before. Only now I feel anxious over the fact that I wasn’t feeling anxious. For a moment, I forgot the evils of the world. Hunger, war, disease, injustices . . . for one brief moment, my world was right, despite the worlds of others being torn apart.
Voices begin to silently accuse me. I hear news anchors, politicians, and angry people on Facebook. My own inner critic joins right in. Many time, critical voices from my personal past jump in as well.
“There are ___ starving/suffering/dying in the country ___, and you have the audacity to feel happy? JERK!!!”
Deep down, I know this isn’t how it should be. I shouldn’t feel guilty for being happy, particularly as these moments of weightlessness are so very brief. I’m aware of the fact that I need to feel happy sometimes, but the accusations become intrusive, and as with all intrusive thoughts, there’s no Easy Button to get rid of them.
Disclaimer: I’m not talking about your legitimate conscience when I talk about that critical voice. There’s a difference. If we steal from a store or say something rude to a husband or tell a lie, our consciences are there to tell us to fess up, repent, and move on. What I’m talking right now are intrusive, repetitive thoughts…the kind that do harm instead of good by continuing to ruin our joy over and over again with hurtful negativity.
For example, I recently got into an argument with a friend on Facebook. I hadn’t seen this friend in years but had done my best to stay friends, despite our political differences. During an online disagreement, however, which I was under the impression was simply a debate, this friend attacked me personally. After not being around me for years, this friend slammed my character and accused me of some very hurtful things, touching topics that had nothing to do with the actual discussion we’d been having.
Accusations of wrongs that I know are not true.
To a mind with intrusive thoughts, however, it’s impossible to just “let it go.” Two weeks later, I still feel the throb of the wound. I’ll be outside gardening with my toddler, and in the early warm rays of the spring sun, I’ll feel completely happy, and then…BOOM! I’m feeling guilty as I hear her voice telling me, “You don’t deserve to be happy like this. Look at all I accused you of. And you’re guilty. You know it.” And without pause, I’ll mentally begin to go through my defense as though I owe it to her.
So what are we to do? Are we to be denied pure contentment, happiness, and joy for the rest of our lives? Are we doomed to worry every moment of every day?
Fighting for Joy: Why even try?
It’s easy sometimes to want to give up. Why fight for those few moments of peace when we’re just doomed to lose them again?
I’m a firm believer in the idea that we’re not put on this earth to seek our own pleasure, but to serve God and others. I do also believe, however, that true joy, contentment, and happiness will result from doing just that. In fact, God wants us to find contentment in what we have, joy in loving Himself and others, and happiness in who He is and how much He loves us with a passionate, all-consuming love.
Let’s start with what the Bible says, then we’ll go on to see what science thinks: Are we supposed to be happy? Or is constant misery our lot in life?
What does God say about living with joy vs. the misery of anxiety?
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness[d] be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”-Philippians 4:4-7
To me, this is one of the most loving, gentle, crooning verses in the whole Bible. Yes, we are to pray for change in our world. And James (the entire book) tells us that we need to act out of the love and change God has wrought in our hearts. But doing all of this, trying to fix the world on our own without an ounce of joy isn’t at all how we were meant to live.
No, we were meant to live REJOICING in God’s good news of love. Life is hard now, but we are loved by the God of the universe, and shall spend eternity in paradise with Him!
Now, I will warn you that some will use this as a sledgehammer. They’ll accuse those who are anxious of breaking God’s command. But I don’t see this as a command given by an angry God. I mean, reread it again and feel the LOVE in the language. It’s like God is reaching down and gently caressing our faces, speaking words of sweet reassurance to His worried little children.
I can’t tell you what a burden this verse lifts from my shoulders. I am to rejoice. I am not to be anxious. I am meant to live with the peace of the Most High in my heart and in my mind.
One of my favorite examples of someone who found joy in God and His salvation is David. The man after God’s own heart, David epitomizes rejoicing in God even in the midst of angst. I mean, for a guy getting chased around the Middle East by guys with swords and arrows, David has this joy in sorrow thing down to a fine art.
“O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
2 many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah[a]
3 But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
4 I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
5 I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
6 I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.” – Psalm 3:3-6
“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
2 I will be glad and exult in you;
I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.” – Psalm 9:1-2
“And now my head shall be lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.” – Psalm 27:6
But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, “Great is the Lord!”” – Psalm 40:16
And I could go on and on. In fact, you should. Read the Psalms, and try to count how many instances of David’s rejoicing you can find.
We’re more inundated than ever with reasons to be sad, depressed, and guilty, particularly thanks to the immediacy of social media and news. And believe me, I’m just as guilty as anyone. I read and share way too many news articles and opinion pieces. But I think for those of us with chronic anxiety, we need to remember the balance called for in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Yes, we will mourn. This world is too full of sin not to. But we need balance. We also need joy and peace and contentment. God created us, soul AND body, to rejoice in Him.
Science agrees with the Bible:
The bible tells us that we need to strike a balance. According to studies, science is also finding that we biologically need positive emotions. According to Havard T.H. Chan’s School of Public Health article, “Happiness and Health,”
A vast scientific literature has detailed how negative emotions harm the body. Serious, sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to “wear and tear” and, eventually, illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.
The article goes on to say that there’s a benefit, in turn to positive mental health, though experts aren’t quite sure what that is yet. According to the article, however, a 2007 study showed that “a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance” seemed to lower the risk of coronary heart disease
CNN’s article, “Happiness is Healthy,” by Elizabeth Landau, says,
5 Tips to Fight for Joy
- Recognize that no one is going to fix the world on his own. Yes, I want to house every stray dog, feed every hungry child, fix education, and help our soldiers overcome their PTSD. I want to sustainably grow all my food and buy my entire wardrobe from responsibly sourced companies and help the bee colonies repopulate. But I can’t do it all, no matter how hard I try. It’s unfair for me or anyone else to expect that of myself.
- Recognize the intrusive, repetitive thoughts for what they are. They are not my real conscience. They are my obsessive thoughts, and not my fault.
- Give thanks to God for His love and ask Him to help me enjoy His gift of reprieve. Read His word (including but definitely not limited to the verses above) to remind yourself of what we were created as forgiven, beloved children of the Risen Lord to do. It is not in my nature to relax. But I need to learn to relax in God’s grace. Yes, I should do my best to love others in His name, but at the end of the day, I can only love because He first loves me. And I need His help to learn how to do that.
- Understand that learning the above point is going to take time. A lifetime of growth is not achieved overnight.
- Put some happy music on. Garden. Make a list of all the things I am grateful for. Dance with my daughter. Reach out to bring a smile to someone else’s face that day. Exercise. Be in the moment. Take joy in my Savior
What about you? Do you have trouble enjoying joy? How do you manage your struggles? We’d love to hear from you! Just put a comment in the comment box below. And don’t forget, you can sign up for my newsletter for extra resources on neurological disorders, education, and spiritual encouragement. As always, thanks for reading!