Ode to Joy: My Musings On Happiness

Happiness.  A great irony in western civilisation.   We have never been more prosperous, and yet we seek that elusive dream of happiness with greater and greater fervour.

It struck me that we all seek happiness, but do we truly know what it is?  Is happiness just an illusion that we chase after like the legendary pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow?  Is it that we are so overfed with images of suffering by our media that our happiness is overwhelmed by the constant stream of pessimism and hopelessness.  Perhaps happiness is a construct of a human existence that is desperately looking for something to distract it from it’s journey of pain on it’s way to inevitable demise.

I wrote this essay for the same reason that I write most things,  for my own catharsis and self-catechization.  But I am publishing it because I would be grateful for intelligent, constructive feedback as I continue to review and reanalyze my beliefs and ideas on this subject.

I will attempt to define happiness at it’s most fundamental level, and attempt to link the psychology to its neurobiological basis.  I will examine the pursuit of happiness, whether it is possible to ever find true happiness, and how that might be achieved.  I then want to review the biblical concept of joy and try and understand it scripturally, and correlate it with our understanding of happiness to see if biblical joy is something deeper than normal human happiness.

DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS, AND IT’S NEUROBIOLOGY

Firstly, what is happiness?

Happiness is a neural construct related to the mood circuit of the brain interacting  with the rewards circuits of the brain in the context of environmental stimuli and innate perception.  It is one half of a continuum of mood, which ranges from depression and dysphoria at one end of the spectrum to happiness, joy and then euphoria at the other end of the spectrum.

I know that sounds so cold and impersonal. It may even engender a vague sense of repulsion in some, like I’ve insulted Mother Theresa.  It’s hard to take something so rich and complex an emotion as happiness and strip it of all it’s personality and warmth.  Happiness, like all other human emotions, is difficult to quantify.

But happiness as part of the mood continuum explains why happiness is often evasive, and why it is normal to pursue greater happiness, but never truly attain it.  It also helps us to come to terms with our current state of happiness, since it allows us to understand that happiness is both internal and external and not mutually exclusive as is so often quoted by many a pop-psychologist.  It aids the understanding of depression, and other psychiatric disorders of mood.

Imagine that mood can be measured on a scale.  For example, plot a graph where the centre of the vertical y-axis is zero, negative ten at the bottom and positive ten at the top.  The units and increments are somewhat arbitrary.  Importantly, the different units represent a level of mood at any given time.  At mood zero, a person would be neither happy nor sad, they would feel neutral.  A score of positive ten would represent euphoria.  Likewise, dysphoria would be represented by a score of negative ten.

Mood fluctuates between these states of euphoria and dysphoria.  This is a normal part of our biology, and follows a similar pattern to any other biological process, where a particular biological variable rises and falls depending on the inputs and outputs of the system and the homeostatic mechanisms that the body has to maintain the variable within a particular range.  This is a quintessential trait of human on all levels: a complex layering of multiple variables which all interact but are all still controlled to a point to maintain them within parameters compatible with life.  Mood is no different on both a biological level and philosophical viewpoint.

In normal human experience, without disease or drugs, mood would not reach either of the extremes, but would usually fluctuate within a smaller range, arbitrarily fifty to sixty percent of the extremes.  The extremes of mood are only reached in either drug states (drug induced euphoria, “a trip”) or psychiatric illness (severe depression).  The point of neutral on the scale, and the causes of fluctuations within the system, vary between individuals, and are set by both biological and cognitive factors.

Mood is ultimately determined by levels of serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine within different parts of the cerebral cortex and midbrain.  In turn, levels of neurotransmitters are influenced by genetics, environmental influences and cognitive beliefs.  For example, if a person is taught to be pessimistic, their cognitive beliefs will usually pull their mood levels lower than someone who is generally taught to be optimistic.  Further, a person who is relatively affluent will, by their nurtured outlook on life, have a higher innate zero point than someone who is brought up in relative poverty or suffering.  A person who is chronically unwell may not think it distressing to have a simple cold, but a person who does suffer sickness often may find a simple cold quite distressing.  Environmental influences create variability in the fluctuations of moods.  A fine, sunny day will enhance a mood, and conversely a cold, rainy or dark day will often decrease mood.

However, while environmental and cognitive factors play a part, biological factors tend to predominate.  Twin studies suggest that if an identical twin has a mood disorder (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder) the other twin has a 70 to 90% chance that they will also develop the disorder.  If a fraternal (non-identical) twin has a mood disorder, their other twin will have a 16-35% chance of developing the disorder.  Thus, scientists believe that genetics account for about 50 to 70% of the development of a mood disorder (depression or anxiety disorders).  It would be reasonable to assume that the opposite is also true – that happiness is possibly 50-70% genetic.

A number of sub-factors influence the biology of our moods.  The set point of our moods is related to both the number and function of the neurotransmitter receptors that are available on our neurons, and by the average amount of neurotransmitters that saturate them.  Some depressive illnesses are caused by a high proportion of defective dopamine receptors, so that no matter how much dopamine is produced, the upper limit of mood is set lower than a normal subject.  Further, individuals have a idiosyncratic set point for the production capacity of their neurotransmitters and an idiosyncratic average output.

These variables can be demonstrated by the following diagrams.

Normal mood

Normal mood

In this example, the average mood level of the average population is set at the arbitrary level of zero.  Over time, levels of mood will fluctuate between a degree of melancholy to a degree of joy within a normal healthy person.  Experience of the extremes of mood would only be felt in extra-physiological or pathological states (as states before, like with drug use or with diseases such as depression).  Some people have a lower or higher set point and/or a naturally greater or smaller fluctuations in their levels of mood.  For those people, levels of mood may be smaller or they may experience happiness as much as others or they may experience greater natural variability.  But since happiness is subjective, their level of happiness is their level of happiness.

Depressed mood

Depressed mood

Enhanced mood ("Happiness")

Enhanced mood (“Happiness”)

Euphoria

Euphoria

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

So why is there a global pursuit of happiness?  Granted, there are some people that, for whatever reason, have a reduced level of happiness relative to other people, and for them a pursuit of increased happiness might be reasonable.  But what about the rest of society that, for the most part, have a relatively average or increased level of happiness?  Why would people who are relatively happy be unsatisfied with their level of mood and live in an endless pursuit of further happiness?  The answer may lie in the neurobiology of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter.  Neurotransmitters act in the brain as a chemical bridge from one nerve cell to another.  Nerve cells are separated from each other by a small gap called a synapse.  When the upstream nerve cell is electrically stimulated, it secretes the neurotransmitter.  As the neurotransmitter fills the space within the synapse, it makes contact with receptor proteins on the downstream nerve.  Once enough receptors have been stimulated on the downstream nerve, an electrical current is generated and the message continues on the downstream nerve and the nerve message continues on. (More information on synapses, with diagrams: http://bit.ly/gsYTrn)

In the 1960’s, Canadian researchers experimenting on rats discovered that placing electrodes in certain brain regions would cause what they thought were intense feelings of pleasure.  The rats skulls were skewered and the electrodes attached to a lever that the rats could press voluntarily, which when pressed, delivered a small dose of current which stimulated the selected brain region.  The scientists noticed the rats with electrodes in a region labelled the “rewards centre” feverishly pressing the levers, sometimes up to two thousand times an hour.  Early theories proposed that the stimulation of the rewards centres of the mammalian brain were causing a euphoric sensation each time, and by extension, eternal happiness was possible if we could stimulate our brains in the right way to remain in a state of indefinite bliss.

As time has progressed, it has become evident that the dopamine-mediated rewards system is mainly a system of ‘liking’ rather than ‘wanting’.  Dopamine responds most to new stimuli, but in doing so, it imprints the brain to stimuli that are important enough to seek in the future.  The memory of the stimulus that lead to the initial dopamine release becomes a template over which the brain builds behaviour patterns.  Despite the brain building up a tolerance to the stimulus, called ‘repetition suppression’, the template has been formed and our behaviour shaped to follow the pattern with a degree of automation, seeking the same stimuli which the brain has been taught is salient.

Thus, the response of our dopaminergic systems to salient or pleasurable stimuli is one of the ways that human beings learn behaviours that offer a survival advantage, since most of the behaviours that provide pleasure are also good for our behaviour (such as eating, or copulation).  As an aside, behaviours which are disadvantageous are usually unpleasant, or downright painful, providing negative reinforcement.  This is another form of learning used to adapt and survive.

Drug use is an example of how the rewards system of the brain can be hijacked.  When certain medications are used (opiates like heroin, or stimulants like cocaine, for example) the dopaminergic neurons in the brain are massively stimulated.   Either a surge of dopamine is forced from the upstream nerve cells, or the drug tightly binds and saturates the receptors on the downstream nerve cell.  The overwhelming stimulation of the dopaminergic system in certain parts of the brain gives the user an intense form of pleasure known as euphoria, the highest feeling of pleasure that one could ever feel.   Addiction occurs because the novel stimulus of the drug, combined with the strong positive correlation from the dopamine surge, forms a hard-wired circuit in the brain of the addict.  The more often they receive the stimulus, the less euphoria they experience, but their brains salience pathways still provide strong impulses to seek the stimulus obsessively.  The addict knows that the stimulus doesn’t give them the same response, but the behavioural template remains such a powerful subconscious force that it compels them to seek the same stimulus anyway.  Most addicts are unable to control that intense craving.

Scientists studying the neurobiology of rewards behaviours have tended to divide happiness into physical pleasures associated with biological needs, and feelings of higher pleasure.  Physical pleasures, such as eating and sex, are known as ‘hedonia’ while the higher feelings of pleasure, associated with the appreciation of art, music, et cetera, as ‘eudaimonia’ (‘a life well lived’) after the distinction that Aristotle made in his writings on the subject.  Recent research using animal and human subjects has confirmed that the same rewards circuits in the brain are used for both hedonistic and eudaimonic stimuli.  In other words, while the source of the appetite may differ, the foundation of the response is the same.

Each time we do something positive that stimulates our rewards networks, we feel happy, joyous or even euphoric depending on the activation of the rewards centre.  And our brain seeks to perform the same action.  However, each level of happiness that we achieve is accompanied by tolerance to the repeated exposures of the rewarding stimulus.  To continue to feel happy we seek more novel stimuli.  When the sources of new stimuli reduce, either by natural selection or attrition, it is harder and harder to find ways of stimulating the rewards centres.

Hence, our never-ending pursuit of happiness.  Our brains have been hard-wired to continue to seek behaviours that give us positive stimuli to the benefit of our survival.  But the imperative comes at a cost, as it becomes harder to find such stimulation.  Most will eventually find a new rewarding behaviour, but some people will not.

Some believe that the pursuit of happiness is nothing more than an expression of the selfish individualism that pervades our society, selfishness disguised as consumerism.  But as shown, the rewards systems need for stimulation by novel or salient stimuli suggests that the ongoing pursuit of happiness in spite of material wealth and abundance is fundamentally biological.

Just as there are other biological, cognitive and environmental factors which affect our mood state, there are other biological, cognitive and environmental variables that affect the pursuit of happiness.  Some people have a dysfunctional rewards circuit either through reduced dopamine production or through dysfunctional dopamine receptors and reduced dopamine sensitivity.  In this situation, these people would have a biologically-based dissatisfaction with life, and would either live in a state of reduced mood and unhappiness or pursue ever-increasing amount of stimuli which would help to boost their dopamine to higher levels.  They would have an abnormally high drive to achieve happiness, despite what other people would consider a happy or abundant life.

There are those who would be the opposite, who no matter what possessions or experiences they find themselves in, would feel enriched and contented, and whose pursuit of material or experiential stimuli would be minimal.  An example of this is the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who was wrongly labelled as the father of hedonism (the pursuit of absolute pleasure at all costs).  In actual fact, Epicurus sought a tranquil life – “a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ‘perfect mental peace’.” (Wikipedia, “Epicurus”)  He spent his time in a garden and taught his school of philosophy there.  He was content to eat simple meals, and aspired to a neutral mood.    To me that sounds like a man that had a highly functional dopaminergic system.

Just as moods can be affected by cognitive and environmental factors, so can the rewards system and the pursuit of happiness, whereby positive outlook is more likely to lead to a release of dopamine related to the higher centres of the brain influencing outlook in a positive way.  Experiencing external pleasures from the environment would also enhance the dopamine release, and may augment the rewards system.  Certainly, exercise has been shown to increase the number of dopamine receptors within the brain, while in animal studies, loss of social status correlated with a decrease in dopamine receptors.  This supports observational studies which show that loneliness increases the risk of depression.

So happiness, then, is a neural construct related to the mood circuit of the brain interacting  with the rewards circuits of the brain in the context of environmental stimuli and innate perception.  The level of happiness of a given person at a given time depends on the pre-determined functional capacity of the neurotransmitter system and its function at that time, combined with environmental variables processed through the filter of a persons cognitive frameworks.  The pursuit of happiness is the inevitable consequence of repetition suppression of neural networks causing a search for further stimulation of both pleasure centres and the dopaminergic neurons of the rewards system by novel or salient stimuli.

THE ATTAINMENT OF TRUE HAPPINESS

But the fundamental question still remains: Can true happiness be obtained, and if so, how?

True happiness is impossible to define on a global level, since happiness is affected by an infinite number of genetic, neurophysiological and environmental factors which aid or limit the level of what may ultimately be achieved by an individual, or indeed, what level of happiness truly satisfies each individual.  It is certainly possible for an individual to achieve what they define as true happiness depending on what set point they accept satisfaction.  But if the “Addicted to happiness” model holds true, then long-term satisfaction with a set level of happiness would be rare since most people would naturally crave greater and greater levels of happiness.  The more happiness one obtains, the more likely one is to seek further happiness.

Perhaps the best way to look at this question is not what leads to true happiness, but what leads to greater happiness.  Ultimately the level of happiness that one can achieve is related to three factors that affect mood, namely the neurotransmitter system of the brain, cognitive frameworks and environmental influences.  Of these three, only one is subject to our control as individuals.

Levels of neurotransmitters can not be controlled easily and reliably.  It is conceivable that regulation of neurotransmitter levels using can be attempted by certain medications such as SSRI’s, SNRI’s, or dopamine agonists.  However, the precision of their usage and the usual side effects preclude their use in normal subjects.  The course of environmental stimuli can be controlled with certainty either.  Hence, the only variable that is subject to any self-control or improvement is an individuals cognitive frameworks.

The field of positive psychology has exploded in the last decade or two, as psychologists came to realize the limitations of negatively focussed psychological approaches, combined with increasing research data to show the correlations of positive behaviour with health outcomes and psychological wellness.

Aspects of cognitive frameworks which relate to the attainment of greater happiness are psychological expectations, and cognitive response to choices and scenarios.  If your baseline expectations are high, then higher net stimulation of the rewards circuits would be needed in order to promote greater feelings of happiness.  So, should we lower our expectations and be pessimistic all the time, so that when positive things occur, our response would be towards greater happiness?  Perhaps.  Referring back to dopamine, the pleasure centres in our brains respond the strongest with the initial pleasurable or novel stimulus, while repeated exposures result in reduced responses.  The biggest response is when we are exposed to an unexpected reward.  In other words, we get more of a euphoric response when our brains did not see the reward coming.  If it is expecting it, the response is dulled.  So if we never expect anything good, when something good comes, we will feel much happier.  But the flip side is that pessimism is associated with a predisposition to depression and other forms of psychological distress.  Lowered expectations offer a solution of sorts, but at a high cost.

Cognitive response to choices and scenarios relates to the basic psychology of optimism.  Optimism is wrongly thought of as the rose-coloured glasses view of life, where if you just believe that life is just, that good always wins, and see only the positive in the situation, then everything will turn out fine.  In actuality, optimism is more related to behaviour rather than outlook.  It is the act of engagement with the world, of taking concrete steps towards goals.  “Characterizing optimists as smiley-faced romantics is unfair. Optimists are actually realists who take steps to solve problems” (Larry Dossey).  Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist from the University of Kentucky, says that optimism “leads to increased well-being because it leads you to engage actively in life, not because of a miracle happy juice that optimists have and pessimists don’t.”  This ‘grounded optimism’ also contains an ability to reframe life and find new meaning.  It is the ability to be fluid and flexible while continuing to re-invent the end goal.  Some psychologists refer to this form of optimism as hope.

In terms of happiness, the optimist will be more likely to accept the situation before them, either positive or negative, and look for ways to engage with it in order to move through it.  While temporary sadness or stress may be encountered, they will usually be able to find a way of dealing with the situation and either solve it, or compromise with it.  This forward movement will increase the chances of them encountering novel or salient stimuli again, which will allow happiness to be rediscovered.  The pessimist, with no hope of finding a solution to the same problem, is more likely to retreat, involute, or remain stuck in the problem.  This guarantees that rewards centres can not be stimulated adequately because there is no chance of encountering novel or salient stimuli, and further happiness will not be attained.

BIBLICAL JOY, AND IT’S RELATIONSHIP TO HAPPINESS

The Bible speaks of the concept of joy many times.  The joy of the Lord is our strength, that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and that our joy may be full, to name a few.  What is biblical joy, is it different to happiness, and how can it be achieved?

The greek word translated most often as ‘joy’ in the New Testament is ‘chara’ which is the joy or gladness received from a person, or the cause or occasion of joy.  It is derived from the root word ‘chairo’ which means to rejoice (or rejoice exceedingly), or to be well, to thrive.  ‘chairo’ was often used at the beginning of letters as a salutation.  So Biblically speaking, it is fair to say that joy connotes a sense of wellbeing as much as it denotes happiness or ebullience.

Joy is listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit.  The greek word used is ‘chara’, so on the surface it would seem that the joy that one receives from the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as joy received from the presence of other people.  It is not really clear from a literal translation of the text that the joy from the Spirit carries a transcendence over genetic or environmental influences (that is, the joy of the Spirit is necessarily impervious to hardships, etc.)  So having the Holy Spirit dwelling within us does not necessarily immunise us against all adversity, so that we will always smile in the face of tribulation and trial.

However, Hebrews 12:2 says, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  This verse uses the same word for joy to describe future happiness so perfect that Jesus was able to endure the worst physical, emotional and spiritual suffering in order to obtain it.

John 15:9-11 quotes Jesus to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  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.”  Again, the same greek word is used is this verse, ‘chara’.  Jesus promised his joy to his disciples, the same joy that enabled him to endure the suffering and shame of the cross.  And they would receive his joy in full.  By logical extension, we as his disciples can also receive the same joy, by following his commands and remaining in his love.  This would suggest that the joy the New Testament describes is more than just happiness, a superficial emotion, but is fundamentally deeper and more profound.

Certainly, the eternal hope that the promise of heaven provides is a deep psychological and spiritual anchor point.  If hope is a key ingredient to grounded optimism, and if grounded optimism provides a cognitive approach that increases the likelihood of continuing to find happiness, then the eternal constant of the hope of heaven and God’s love, and the promises that he provides (like “I will never leave you or forsake you,” and “Nothing can separate us from God’s love” and that “all things work together for good for those that love God according to his will and purpose” for example) are focal points that can reframe any situation in life and enable actions towards these goals.  This alone is enough to increase the propensity for Christians to find ongoing happiness.

How does one obtain the joy that Jesus describes.  The key seems to be in the same passage in John 15.  Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  What did he tell us?  “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.”  So, keep Jesus commands and his joy will be in us, and our joy would be full.  What was his command to us then?  That is found in verse 12 and 13, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Selfless love, then, is the key to biblical joy.

Giving selflessly to others as a way to finding happiness is counter-intuitive, especially given the prevailing trend in western secular society, which promotes self-analysis and self-help, or gaining more material possessions, or engaging in whatever activities to seek self-pleasure.

As discussed before, eudaimoniac activity does provide stimulation of the rewards centres of our brains, just as hedonistic activity does.  Working to help others in need would help our psyche regain perspective about how fortunate we find ourselves, which would help restore happiness by refocusing the cognitive set point and expectations.  However, altruism has positive effects in and of itself.  An experiment showed that performing acts of kindness for 10 days resulted in a higher life satisfaction score compared to normal daily activities (Buchanan KE, Bardi A. “Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction” J Soc Psychol. 2010 May-Jun;150(3):235-7).

Is it possible to be simply content?  Can one be content and happy simultaneously, or are the two mutually exclusive?  Certainly, the Apostle Paul wrote, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into [this] world, [and it is] certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.”  (1 Timothy 6:6-8)  This comment to Timothy seems obvious enough, and seems to contradict the teaching of Jesus.  Can the two be reconciled?

An answer may lie in the original greek word for ‘contentment’ and in other contexts in which the word has been used.  The original greek word for contentment in the King James is autarkeia.  It is only used twice in the New Testament and both times by Paul.  The other use of the word is in 2 Corinthians 9:8, “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.”

In context, 2 Corinthians 9:8 refers to giving – a person should decide what they are willing to give to God, generously and cheerfully, because God is able to make all grace abound towards them, so they will always have all they need in everything.  Why?  To abound in every good work.

This converges with Jesus teaching rather than contradicts it.  Jesus instructed that joy would be full when leading a life of selfless love.  Paul’s guidance simply augments this.  When you give selflessly (cheerfully and generously), God provides you with everything that you need for everything you do, so that you have ample for every good work.  God does this by his grace.

A similar theme runs through Paul’s teaching later to the Corinthians in the same epistle.  A famous verse with the same motif is 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Central to this verse is the powerful phrase, “My grace is sufficient for you.”  The word ‘sufficient’ is a derivative of autarkeia, and means “to be possessed of unfailing strength – to be strong, to suffice, to be enough”.  Again, the message is that it is God’s grace that provides that which we need but do not have.

So then, joy and contentment are not mutually exclusive, but rather, are different aspects of the same whole.  Contentment may best be though of for Christians as a higher that neutral set point on the mood scale.

Performance of a selfless act of kindness triggers a surge of neurotransmitters that raises mood.  God’s grace provides all that is needed for every good work, thus restoring supply, allowing further giving which further enhances mood.  God’s grace then supplies further, and so on.  This system of ongoing replenishment enables regular stimulation of rewards centres by altruistic acts (joy), but without the diminishing of resources with which to give (contentment).  This enhances mood while at the same time maintains a state in which all needs are met.  In this way, a Christian living a life of selfless love is like a dam with a constant inflow to match it’s outflow, so that while it waters the valley below, it also remains full.  The constant enhancement of mood should therefore reset the average mood point higher.

SUMMARY

George Bernard Shaw summarised it well, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

So, happiness is a mood state that is dependent on innate biological and cognitive factors, and is relative to our life experience.  It is the flow of the natural tidal rhythm of mood, opposite to the ebb of sadness.  It is a neural construct related to the moods circuit of the brain interacting with the rewards circuits of the brain in the context of environmental stimuli and innate perception.  The level of happiness of a given person at a given time depends on the pre-determined functional capacity of the neurotransmitter system and its function at that time, combined with environmental variables and the persons cognitive frameworks.

Happiness can only come under conscious control through the cognitive approach, involving our expectations, our choices, and our thought patterns.  By retraining ourselves to have realistic expectations for ourselves and others, retraining our conscious awareness to look for the good in our environment and relationships instead of the negative, and retraining ourselves to make choices which improve our relationships and our environment, we can do all that is possible to achieve happiness.

Biblical happiness, usually translated ‘joy’ in the New Testament, in it’s purest form is a profound joy that Jesus himself enjoyed, and promised to his disciples.  This is partly related to the deep psychological and spiritual anchor of hope in God and his promises, which in turn helps believers cognitively restructure any life experience and take positive action with eternal hope as their constant.  It is also related to selfless love, which Jesus commanded that his disciples show to others, and it’s action on our rewards systems.  This is supported by recent psychological research which showed that altruism is associated with higher life satisfaction scores.  Contentment as outlined in the Bible is a state of constant replenishment by the grace of God, enabling both ongoing selfless love and a higher average set point for mood.

(March 2011)

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One Response to Ode to Joy: My Musings On Happiness

  1. Dad says:

    I heartily concur. Dad

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