“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” ~ CS Lewis
Joy (Greek – Χαρα – pronounced kah-rah): Might be defined as delight, gladness or wonder. It need not be dependent on outward circumstances. Happiness is often associated with cause and effect. Happiness is also often associated with receiving a reward. Our experience of joy, on the other hand, is reward in itself.
The Habit of Joy
Earthly passions and desires are fleeting. Often happiness is defined by our relationship to outward experiences or circumstance. If I have piles of money in the bank, then I will be happy. If I have a fancy car, then I will feel secure. If I am famous, then I will be glamorous and happy. If I can just get hold of whatever it is, then I will finally be happy. The problem is that getting hold of something is just half of it. Once we get hold of anything, then we must keep it. Keeping hold of something fleeting is terribly difficult indeed. It is the paradox of addiction. Joy is beyond the happiness of resting in the security of outward experiences and circumstances. Joy is an end in itself.
The habit of joy deeply involves how we relate to any of the fruits of the Spirit working in us. When we surrender to God’s work in us, then we can stop striving and trying to clutch onto success or failure. Surrendering to God’s work in us is not limited to the fruits listed in Galatians. Fruits such as hospitality or humility are also areas where we can find joy. Having joy through hospitality is not judging ourselves or others by how many people we have served or how much enjoyment others have had through our efforts. Finding joy in hospitality is losing ourselves in doing our best. Our efforts can be a complete failure, but if we do our best then we can find joy in being hospitable. No matter what fruit of the Spirit is working through us, when we lose ourselves to the utter joy of feeling and relishing God at work in us then we can enjoy it no matter what the outcome.
We can find joy in humility by relishing in a humble heart. We don’t find joy in humility by judging whether we are the humblest or by constantly judging how humble we are compared to other people. Joy is about relationship and is very countercultural. Joy is an end in itself because God is with us always. If we surrender to God’s love and joy, then it does not matter so much if we succeed in all our worldly pursuits or if we fail miserably. What matters is our relationship.
Certainly, we are invited and God yearns for us to use our skills to bring the fruits of the Spirit into the world. But, no matter what we accomplish, when we replace our will with God’s will for us, then we can find joy. Viktor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, wrote that if we have a whyto live for, we can face any how. Even in the darkest moments of the death camps, Frankl and others were able to find meaning and purpose despite their outward circumstances. No one could strip them of their connection with God.
Joy is closely related with grace, even coming from the same word root. In Greek “grace” is χάρις (pronounced cháris). It is where we get the word charisma. Signs of God’s grace working in us give us charisma. Any gift of the fruit of the Spirit working in us is both the source of our joy and grace. They are ends in themselves. Through God’s Word, we know that we are to create fruit that will last: love, joy, peace, kindness or gentleness. We live and dwell in God’s love as we devote ourselves to serving God’s will. With this why to live, we can face any how. We might fail miserably. Others might dash our hopes. But no one can take away God’s grace and love for us for our efforts.
The Neuroscience of Joy
Much could be said about the neuroscience of joy. I would like to highlight four points: friendship, the flow state, laughter, and play.
Friendship: For many of us friendship is our greatest source of joy. What better friendship is their than of our Lord? Christ has made the truth known to us and called us friends (John 15:15). Friendship with the Lord of Life is our deepest resting place of joy. It is also our model for friendship with others here on earth. The baptismal vow of the Episcopal Church inspires us to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to loveourneighbors as ourselves. It is through our relationship and friendship with Christ that we can see Christ in others. This sharing, partnership, and communion is at the heart of all our interactions and known by the Biblical word, κοινωνία (Strong’s 2842), pronounced koi-no-nia. Koinonia also translates as intimate fellowship. We both receive and offer the fruit of the Spirit with our friends through love, joy, peace, and kindness. There are expectations, but there is also understanding and compassion for failures and our personal weaknesses.
Our mirror neurons are also central to our joy. When we act and intend for others to have joy, our mirror neurons fire allowing us to experience the same joy that we hope others to have. When we also perceive and expect Christ to work through others, it strengthens our sense of perception that Christ is indeed already at work not only in others, but in ourselves. The thalamus is a part of the brain that is a conduit of our sense perception. It is largely responsible for helping us feel that God is real in an objective sense. The more you strengthen an idea over and over, the thalamus helps the brain respond as if the idea is real within the world.
Everything can be perceived as intimate fellowship because all that we do is an expression of our relationship with God. As we share joy and wonder with God, we also share our failures and brokenness. Whether with our spouse, family members, close friends or even our enemies, we can find joy with them because we act and intend knowing that it is God already at work in us and also through them. We can forgive our friends and enemies just as Christ forgives us. We can also make room and appreciate our differences. Christ has commanded us to love one another. Rather than seen as a burden or some rote rule to apply to every situation, we find joy in loving others even if they are our enemy because Christ is our example and our guiding light. It is about relationship and connection rather than simply outcomes and objectives. Many of us are deeply lonely. And many of our relationships are fraught with brokenness and failure. But when we are true in our relationship with Christ, then all of our relationships open up into profound joy because joy is at the center of all that we are. Our perception of all changes just as the thalamus will change. It is not how much we do, but our relationship of surrender and love. It is not if I love others perfectly then God will love me. It is a surrender to God’s love that is our wellspring to loving others. We are invited to say yes. No matter what failures come, our continual saying yes to God will continually keep us united in infinite joy.
Flow: The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has championed the idea of the flow state. It is also known as “being in the zone”. Many people report losing a sense of time and space when they enter the flow state or “being in the zone”. Like an artist or a painter in the midst of their creative expression, the flow state is when a person is totally absorbed in the process of using their skills. The same can be said for a teacher with students or a gardener in nature. Each of us has gifts that we share with the world that we can become totally absorbed in. We can enter the flow state when the challenge of a situation meets our skill to engage it. When our skills are being put to the test by a challenging situation, then we can get lost in it. It is the crossroads of creativity. If there is too much challenge in a situation, then we may feel overwhelmed by it. If we have few resources and the risk is high, then we might get filled with anxiety. If there is not enough challenge in a situation, it may seem boring. An example would be doing the exact same thing over and over again year after year.
Any habit can help generate the flow state. What is so special about the creative flow state, is that it is an end it itself. Being challenged to create and engage our skills within and amongst the world is the gift in itself. The same can be said of the fruit of the Spirit. As we grow in kindness, we will perhaps pick up on more social cues and learn of new ways to provide kindness to others. As we grow in patience, we can maintain our hopes and plans for the future even in the midst of the most difficult challenges. And because our creativity and the skills that we apply are to build God’s kingdom, we need not get lost in measuring our productivity.
Our work towards building God’s kingdom is not measured in who wins, but in the very inclination to say yes to being a fellow worker. God rewards us with the riches of the flow state for our trying. Win or lose. The notion of fellow worker comes up in scripture such as 1 Corinthians 3:9, “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” The word translated as servants, (Strong’s 4904) συνεργός,is also translated as co-laborer or workfellow. As friends of the Lord of Life, we are invited to be co-laborers and workfellows in helping produce fruit that will last. We are invited to use our skill, to be challenged and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The charisma, grace, and talents that God gifts to us are refined and honed through our lives. And God rewards us through the flow state when we give ourselves over to this invitation as co-laborers. No matter how much we produce.
Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist, reminds us that the flow state is not simply for adults. Children also find creative ways that engage their skill and challenge so that their neural circuitry can develop early on. For a child the act of producing a drawing for the refrigerator might be very challenging. But children are also rewarded by God in the flow state. Crayons stay within the lines, colors are chosen, and flourishes are made. And the work of art is displayed prominently by magnets on the fridge for all to see! The same premise extends to an architect who creates a skyscraper or a composer who writes a symphony.
Below is a diagram illustrating how high skill and high challenge meet to generate the flow state.
The flow state swaps out conscious processing for more unconscious processing. Attention is heightened in the flow state. Areas of the brain that would inhibit quick thinking are turned off. Research has found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that involves self-monitoring is turned off in the flow state. This allows for creativity to flow more freely. Research also shows that the neurochemicals of endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin play an active part in flow by stimulating pleasure and performance enhancement.[i]
Laughter: A universal gift wired into our beings is laughter. Laughter produces endorphins and an overall sense of wellbeing. It improves the immune system. It decreases stress hormones. It is wonderful! And we cannot get enough of it. Scripture reminds us to rejoice in it: “A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13). In his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin outlines that humor and laughter are at the heart of a spiritual life. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu also ruminate on its power in their The Book of Joy. So often in the history of spiritual formation, it was believed heavy handedness was the optimal approach. But now we recognize that people of faith live richer lives when they don’t take themselves too seriously. With laughter we can relish some of our most grieved mistakes or missteps. Is there a time in your life when you made an incredibly embarrassing mistake that you can now look back on and laugh? Laughter helps us overcome our drive toward perfection. We can embrace our imperfection and laugh at it!
Play: Children help us find joy. They are our greatest teachers about the joy of play. They help us to remember how important play is both for us spiritually and neurologically. The researcher Stuart Brown has made many discoveries about play. He has discovered how social play fires up the cerebellum, drives impulses to the frontal lobe, and develops contextual memory. The cerebellum, once thought to be primarily for motor coordination, is now being seen as key to “cognitive functions such as attention, language processing, sensing musical rhythm, and more.”[ii] Play should not stop in childhood. Our lives should be infused with play throughout. Play is enormously important in crafting the brain. And if the purpose is more important than the act, it is probably not play. Even while doing seemingly mundane errands, we can be playful. We can be playful with the people we meet, marvel at the nature around us, or hum a tune while we are doing errands. Children find whimsy and delight so very easily and often in situations that might seem terribly boring to others. Not all of us have the luxury of a job that we absolutely love. But if we can find love and play while at work, we can also have joy. We can be playful with those we work with so that the work becomes play. Play helps us remember that it is the act itself, not the product, that brings us joy. Even in difficult tasks and the challenges of life, we can remain playful. Stuart Brown has also shown that losing a sense of playfulness affects the ability to survive and thrive.
The Theology of Joy
“for the joy of the Lord is your strength” ~ (Nehemiah 8:10)
It is an immeasurable gift to have a resting place in God. Through God’s assurance, we are able to surrender and find joy in a challenging and often disappointing world. The world is precarious and unstable. With God as our Shepherd, we can experience everlasting joy. No matter how much we do, our world is unstable. It is only in relationship with an immutable immeasurable real God that there can be stability and joy. I speak from the experience of my own life, of having no place to feel safe or secure. Even the most faithful and perfect spouse or partner will at some point disappoint us. Even the youngest and strongest person will someday die like the rest of us. Even the wealthiest people cannot stave off the ravages of time and death. Now that I have found God, I have the safety and security of knowing that I am in and with God. It might seem a strange thing to find joy through surrender. But when we give up our struggle to find happiness, joy is precisely what we can find.
When we replace our bad habits with the fruit of the Spirit, then it does not matter so much what our successes and failures are. When we shift our focus towards love, then love will make a home in us. If we surrender to the call of God’s love coursing through us and from us, then we can find joy. All we have to do is say yes and to do our best. Our best will never be enough to overcome everything broken in the world, but we will know that we are enough. We can rest in the joy of knowing that God loves us.Jesus said, “anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). Jesus did not say, anyone who is extremely successful I will love. He did not say I won’t love you unless you are the best.
Joy is our relationship of saying yes to God. Joy is a particular fruit of the Spirit, but it is also the disposition that we have to any fruit of the Spirit working in us. We can find joy in kindness. We can find joy in peace. We can find joy in gentleness. When we stop judging ourselves and others by their output and relish in doing our best, then we can rest in joy. We can rest in the joy of God’s love working through us, of God making a home in us. Christ helps remind us of this profound truth: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11).
The Neuroscience of Addiction
“You are slaves of the one whom you obey.” (Romans 6:16)
Often sadness is considered the opposite of joy. I believe addiction is in many ways the opposite of joy largely because of how it functions neurologically. Joy is reward in itself, but its opposite is truly opposite: Addiction craves external rewards and numbs us to the joy of actually experiencing them. Addiction is not reward in itself. It does not provide either love or creativity. The thrill comes from the chase. It is a hedonic treadmill. Addiction is defined by abuse, dependence, and pathological craving.
The neurochemical, dopamine is at the heart of the reward system. Healthy levels of dopamine will help us with motivation and in the pursuit of desires. It is vitally important to us. Dopamine is released from the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmentum area. In the frontal cortex it will help us work toward our desired goals. It will also help with decision making. Dopamine will help us feel rewarded in our pursuit of meaning and purpose.
But if the meaning and purpose we find in life is hurtful to others or found through addiction, then the dopamine circuit gets turned toward the negative. Studies have shown that elevated levels of dopamine do not make people more content. Rather they get geared up for wanting more. They become addicts. If you have not personally suffered from addiction it is almost certain that you know someone who does or has suffered.
Addiction can be for substances such as alcohol as well as behaviors. Behaviors can range from food, pornography, video games, gambling to shopping addiction. It can be for many things. Much of our sensationalized traumatic news can fit into the category of addiction. We could also include the violence we see on television and in video games. The increased prevalence and entertainment of violence has been labeled by some as the pornography of violence.
Common to various types of addiction is the hijacking of the reward system. Numbing of the reward, tolerance, a large release of dopamine, and a weakened prefrontal cortex inhibitory response are all features of addiction and the hijack of our reward system. When we suffer from addiction, the reward actually becomes less appealing over time. Addicts need a bigger risk and reward to maintain a sense of desire and stimulation. Addiction is much more than a pleasurable diversion. In addiction there is an inability to stop. Addiction is destructive to our lives and relationships.
When our dopamine system is out of control, it is more like scratching an itch rather than medicine for a wound. Many of our desires are very basic, such as for food or for procreation. Advertisers know to play on these desires. Advertisers also play on our fears, pride, and feelings of in-group and out-group. They often try to create our desires for us. Cues are a large part of addiction. Shiny, fast, and big are just a few that we could name. When our goals get manipulated, then we can become addicts. Elevated dopamine will drive us toward craving.
Some of the most addictive substances, like cocaine or methamphetamine ramp up the effect of dopamine. The problem is that these systems of ramping up get so out of whack that they need more and more of the drug to produce the desired effect. Much of our society is stuck in cycles of addiction: release, fear, guilt, tension, release, fear, guilt, tension. The dopamine reward circuit must not get hijacked by fear.
Society can train people to fear rejection by telling them that they are part of an out-group. They are told that they need the reward of being accepted or of being part of the in-group. In school this could be the pressure to wear certain clothes, to act a certain way or to think like others. Thus, the cycle of addiction is born. What is so tragic is that it is often unconscious. We do things often because we are told or taught them by others. Often others tell us or teach us without knowing they are teaching or telling us. And many of us have a genetic predisposition toward addiction as well.
Our possessions can come to possess us. Our striving to get things only leaves us with the fear of them being taken away. It might also leave us suspicious of others. Research has shown that lottery winners are actually less content than before they won. With more stresses, people vying for their money, and poor decision making, often lottery winners will confess being happier before the winnings. Also, some of the most “successful” people are often those with a Type A personality. The Type A personality is defined by constant striving, impatience and competitiveness. Another term for describing the Type A personality is joyless striving. Those who have the most sometimes can’t appreciate any of what they have because they are so possessed by wanting more. Another psychological term for the disease of not being able to appreciate overabundance is affluenza.
One might argue that many have become addicted to hate. Does it not sometimes seem that there is abuse, dependence, and pathological craving toward hating people of opposing political parties? Perhaps even more troubling is our country’s addiction to debt. At over $25 Trillion and climbing, there still seems almost unanimous consensus amongst politicians to ignore the problem. Not recognizing our problems is also a key feature of addiction. Our children and grandchildren are shackled to the sins of today. What legacy are we going to leave them? And what will they think of us when they reach adulthood?
Strengthening the Habit of Joy
The Butterfly Effect
Earlier in this book I described the Butterfly Effect discovered by the scientist Edward Lorenz while computing weather models. He found that the slightest difference in an initial query ultimately produced extremely different weather patterns when running simulations. Each one of us, no matter how small we seem in our own minds is infinitely powerful. Our lives change the world.
To think of our lives as a metaphor of a butterfly might seem extremely contrary to what one might expect or hope. It might seem ridiculous. A butterfly is a tiny insect with a brief life. But it is a rich reminder that our lives are both very small and brief as well. When seen against the fabric of time and space, each human is so very small. But like the butterfly effect, each of us is infinitely intertwined with all things and has infinite impact. Being vulnerable and embracing the fact that we are finite is a way that we can also embrace infinity. Those who confront death face to face often are the most alive amongst us. Those who deny the reality of death also deny life because they are unable to truly appreciate the preciousness of every moment.
The universe and all of the competing signals of culture and society swirling around us can seem overwhelming like a hurricane. We will be fully alive when we are honest with ourselves about how very small we are. Then God’s brilliance can shine through us.
When we allow the fruits of the Spirit to work through us, then from our innermost being will burst forth torrents, floods and rivers of living water (John 7:38). All of us can connect with the power of nature. All of us have seen the massive power of a thunderstorm. We have seen lightning flash across the sky. This imagery of torrents and rivers bursting that Jesus uses to describe the change that happens in us through our faith, is so powerful because it speaks to the power of the Holy Spirit coursing in and through us. The imagery of the butterfly effect is also connected to weather patterns. Despite however small we may feel, when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us in love, joy, and peace, then God’s glory bursts forth from us like a mighty river. The works that we do, like the beating wings of a butterfly, might seem small, but they cause enormous ripple effects that span out into eternity.
Like the brilliance of a butterfly’s coloring, the light that shines through us out into the world also captivates others with the eternal. A butterfly is mysterious and beautiful. The markings, luminescence, and intricacy are all so extravagant. Each human is infinitely unique in a similar way. Seeing the infinitely unique beauty of each of us helps us see the infinitely unique beauty of every moment. Everything is pregnant with that eternity. Everything is intertwined.
Research shows that we are more joyful, have higher levels of self-esteem, concentration, and have more flow when we are creative and active.[iii] Replacing our will, with God’s will for us is the source of our joy. Christ said that, “if you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11). Following God’s will is the source of our joy.
For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:
Try this: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you most felt God’s joy. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience. Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of lightness, playfulness, laughter, or awe? Perhaps you feel tingles on your skin? Where in your body do your feel these sensations? Describe below how it feels in your body to abide in God’s joy.
You can do this exercise at the end of each day thinking of the time where you most felt God’s joy the previous day.
Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s joy working in and through your body?
Try this with caution. Do not retraumatize yourself. If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you struggled with addiction. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience. After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of despair, hopelessness, muscles clinched, knots in your stomach, or being out of control? Describe below how it feels in your body to suffer from addiction.
What is one source of my craving or addiction? What scripture, resources or tools from this book will help me overcome it?
What is one habit with my spouse, friends, family, or community that is stuck in a cycle of craving and addiction and what specific changes would create more joy?
What one specific and measurable goal to create more of God’s joy do I have that will help overcome an ingrained culture of addiction at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to?
~ Pray ~
God, I am Yours. I say yes to joy.
I will challenge and overcome my craving and addiction.
I surrender to Your joy.
[i]“The Science of Peak Performance,” Time, accessed December 5, 2018, http://time.com/56809/the-science-of-peak-human-performance/.
[ii]Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, (New York: Avery, 2009), 34.
[iii]Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 101.