Recent scientific research into the workings of the human brain has given us a deeper understanding about why some behaviour patterns diminish stress and inspire gladness. Of course, the Creator, having built these means of gladness into the biology, physics and chemistry of the human body, chose to tell us so in Scripture. Let me list a few of these practical ways to provoke gladness.
Brain scans have now revealed that we can induce our own happiness by expressing gratitude. A clear example occurred when the apostle Peter, miraculously released from Death Row in the middle of the night just hours before his impending execution, ‘knocked at the door of the gate . . . to the home of . . . the mother of John Mark, where many were gathered for prayer, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to open it. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed that, instead of opening the door, she ran back inside and told everyone, “Peter is standing at the door”‘ (Acts 12:12-14, New Living Translation throughout this article).
However, the intercessors indoors were not so glad, presuming he was already dead and therefore it must just be his departing spirit that was rattling the entrance en route to glory, and so they wanted to start the grieving process!
If you consider your own emotional patterns you will have noticed that, when you express thanks – to God and to others to whom you are grateful – it releases the brain’s chemicals that cause gladness. So, why not resolve to practise a constant attitude of gratitude? And when giving someone a bouquet, remember that it must never be a bunch of ‘dutiful’ flowers!
So, watch how you view things. When the driver complained to the car-wash attendant who had just cleaned his windscreen: ‘It’s still dirty; rinse it again’, his wife snatched off his spectacles and wiped them over. He then discovered that it’s not just ‘beauty [that] lies in the eye of the beholder’. Oops! So, is your view of others distorted by a critical and cynical self-righteous outlook? Maintain a grateful approach to life, even when things seem to go wrong. Say with David: ‘Even when I walk though the darkest valley I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me’ and ‘your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:4,6). Then you will see ‘the funny side’ of so many problems, and enjoy ‘the fun side’ of life as a whole. Confucius said, ‘The wise man marvels at the commonplace.’ So, even nature’s everyday ordinariness can bring us fresh and refreshing enjoyment. ‘Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning’ was the testimony of Jeremiah even amidst his tearful lamentations (Lamentations 3:23).
* ‘Be thankful in all things’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Laughter is another rather obvious trigger to release joy. The Jewish exiles who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon rapturously sang the lyrics of Psalm 126:1-3, ‘When the Lord brought back his exiles to Jerusalem, it was like a dream! We were filled with laughter, and we sang for joy. And the other nations said, “What amazing things the Lord has done for them.” Yes, the Lord has done amazing things for us! What joy!’
Laughter releases substantial amounts of dopamine, the body’s calming chemical, into the pleasure circuits of the brain. After all, the alternative is a no-brainer – brooding on, and yielding to, resentment can only breed anxiety and angst.
But how about this? Brain scans have now unveiled this piece of good news: even thinking about laughing makes us feel somewhat happier!
* ‘Always be joyful’ (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
- Enjoying the wonders of ‘nature’
Going out into the countryside to observe creation with all your senses will induce calmness and bliss. During their schools’ holiday week in October I accompanied my daughter and teenaged grandson for a two hour stroll through an arboretum, soaking up the rich variety of beautiful autumn colours displayed in the changing foliage of well-cultivated trees from all over the world. Lines penned by the psalmist sum up how we felt as we drank in the glories of a veritable paradise park in warm sunshine: ‘The trees of the Lord are well cared for. . . . The Lord takes pleasure in all he has made! . . . Let all that I am praise the Lord’ (Psalm 104:16,31,35).
* ‘[Do] not worry about everyday life . . . Look at the birds . . .[and] the lilies’ (Matthew 6:25-28).
- Orderliness from a completed project
Mrs Beeton introduced Victorian readers of her ‘Household Management’ to the idea of ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’. But she was only echoing Scripture. Isaiah declared with conviction to all idol worshippers, ‘the Lord [YHWH] is God, and he created the heavens and earth and put everything in place. He made the world to be lived in, not a place of empty chaos‘ (Isaiah 45:18).
In fact the creation epic in Genesis chapter 1 starts with a scene of a chaotic building site: ‘The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters‘ (Genesis 1:2). Then there follows a poetic description of creative orderliness. After a week of an alternating daily rhythm of work and sleep, it concludes with God’s Sabbath cessation from work. We can also observe that our Creator did not multi-task, but completed his work one stage at a time. He also gave himself a series of short-term rewards in the form of a ‘didn’t we do well?’ evening by evening, although the entire project was not yet completed. When ‘God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31) he was obviously experiencing gladness.
We can also see orderliness in the many details given to Moses concerning the constructing of the Tabernacle, the regulations of the various offerings, the garments worn by the priests, and the calendar of annual festivals. When the Lord’s prophets foretold judgment on a nation they often did so in the vocabulary of the deconstructing of all orderliness. ‘The judgment on Edom will never end; . . . the land will lie deserted . . . It will be haunted . . . [in] chaos and destruction‘ (Isaiah 34:10-11). ‘I looked at the earth, and it was empty and formless. I looked at the heavens, and there was no light. . . . and all the people were gone, and the fertile fields had become a wilderness. The town lay in ruins.’ (See Jeremiah 4:23-28).
* ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow . . . Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Matthew 6:34).
- Music and movement
It seems strange that music is not mentioned in the Bible until Genesis 4:21 – Cain’s descendant ‘Jubal, the first of all to play the harp and flute’. However, when God put ‘some questions to’ Job, his very first was: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ when ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’ (Job 38:1-7). But apart from Deborah’s prophetic song (Judges 5:1-31) and Miriam’s singing accompanied by women dancing with tambourines (Exodus 15:20-21), sacred music only really came to be a regular feature of communal worship in a major way in the reigns of King David and King Hezekiah, with attendant tympani, strings and wind instruments (2 Chronicles 29:25-30).
By the way, I got a fresh angle on the exhortation to ‘sing to the Lord a new song’ when I read of a species of song birds that learn a new tune every spring, thereby developing their brains to support their efforts!
Music has been in creation from the very beginning, and it will certainly be there in the ages to come. Isaiah foretold that, amidst the fury of the day of the Lord, ‘the people of God will sing a song of joy, like the song at the holy festivals. You will be filled with joy, as when a flautist leads a group of pilgrims to Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 30:27-33). And ’a new song’ characterised the celebration in heaven that was revealed to John by the ascended Christ on the Isle of Patmos (Revelation 5:9-14).
*‘Be filled with the Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, and making music to the Lord in your hearts’ (Ephesians 5:18-19).