Podcast episode 025: The pursuit of Christian happiness
Is “happiness” a subjective emotional state? Or is it something that is more objectively measurable in terms of the standard of wellbeing someone enjoys? Given that the Bible doesn’t seem to have a particular word for “happiness”, does that mean that happiness is unimportant as far as God is concerned? Is there a Christian pursuit of happiness? And if so, how would it proceed?
In this episode, Kirsty Birkett lets us in on the research she is currently doing into all these questions, drawing both on the massive amount of secular research into happiness that has flourished over the past few decades, and on what the Bible says about positive emotions like happiness.
Links referred to:
- The Advanced Diploma at Moore College
- “A very short course in Christian ethics”, Saturday 25 May, 9:30am–1:00 pm at Moore College
- Encore webinar: “The elusive joy of Christian community”, Monday 15 April, 7:30–9:00pm pm
Runtime: 42:44 min. Subscribe via
Tony Payne: You may have heard of Matthieu Ricard. He’s a Tibetan Buddhist monk and he’s been labelled the world’s happiest man. Ricard participated in a neuroscience experiment that showed that his brain had a massive capacity for happy and positive thoughts. Now, according to Ricard, the potential to have such a large amount of happy and positive thoughts is within the reach of all of us—if only we spent more time meditating each day on happy thoughts, and brought out the potential for goodness and happiness that we all possess. All of which sounds great—if it indeed were that easy and indeed if it were true that we all had such a potential for goodness.
But of course, as Christians we bring a slightly different perspective to the question of happiness—not only in having, perhaps, a more realistic vision of the human personality and our capacity for evil, but also in our perspective on whether happiness is itself very important. Does it matter whether we feel happy or not, so long as we’re being godly and doing the right thing? Or is that a rather miserable view of the Christian life? That’s our topic in today’s episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast: the pursuit of Christian happiness.
Hello, I’m Tony Payne and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Now, our goal here at the Centre for Christian Living is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And we do that in each episode of this podcast, of course, and also in the public events that we run throughout the year.
But coming up later this term on May 25th, we’re going to do something just a little bit different. Rather than focusing on a particular issue and bringing the Bible to bear on it, we’re going to discuss how we bring the Bible to bear on every issue. On this Saturday morning mini course, we’re going to teach a simple framework for bringing the Bible’s view of reality to how we should live in the midst of reality day by day—whether in our homes or our churches, our workplaces, in society. We’d like to teach, in other words, a very short course in Christian ethics. That’s the title for this Saturday morning mini course: “A very short course in Christian ethics”. It will run from 9:30am ‘til 1pm on Saturday May 25th here at Moore College. We’ll provide morning tea, but we’ll leave you to enjoy the culinary delights of Newtown afterwards for lunch. That’s May 25th, “A very short course in Christian ethics”. If you go across to our website—that’s ccl.moore.edu.au—you can get all the details and register.
But let’s get to our guest for today’s episode.
Kirsten Birkett: I’m Kirsty Birkett. I teach at Oak Hill Theological College in London, and I’m also a—a Latimer Research Fellow there. But for this past six months, I’ve been working in Sydney, sponsored by Anglican Deaconness Ministries—just given some time to work on a particular project.
TP: Tell us about this project, Kirsty, ’cause it’s about happiness. What got you interested in researching happiness?
KB: I guess it’s—yeah, it’s some years ago I started thinking about it, before I ever thought I’d make it an actual project. I was quite depressed for a time in my 20s, and that was successfully treated. If you do things like cognitive behavioural therapy and some antidepressant drugs, that’s—I mean, they—they can be very effective, and in my case, they were. So I was cured of depression, which I think, it—it’s an illness, you need to see a medical specialist about it if you—if you think you are depressed, and it can be cured, and in my case, it was.
But at that stage, I started thinking, “But that’s—it—it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m happy.” And that started me thinking about, “Well, what’s the difference?” I always assumed that if I wasn’t depressed, therefore I’d be happy. They’re just the opposites. But that’s not necessarily the case, and it made me start thinking that emotions are much more complicated than that.
And so, at that stage, I—I started reading a bit about, well, what is happiness? And then it occurred to me, “Should I be thinking about this at all, as a Christian? Isn’t this a bit selfish?” You know, isn’t that a worldly thing—that people are so concerned about happiness and—and wanting happiness for their lives or, you know, that people say it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re happy? And—and I knew that couldn’t be true; it does matter what you do. And it can’t be the most important thing, surely! And when I occasionally talked to other Christians about it, my own fears were reflected back to me. You know, it’s not really a Christian thing to be concerned about happiness. It is a bit shallow, maybe, and it’s just a—a sort of passing fleeting thing, and—and you shouldn’t be too worried about it.
But at the same time, I thought, “But it’s—but it’s a nice thing to be happy,” and just—just working out that “What should I be thinking about it as a Christian?” That was the point at which I thought, “Well, I’ll do a bit more reading about this—try and work out, well, what even do I mean by ‘happiness’? What is it? What do other people say it is?” And just to get more of a perspective on it as a Christian. So my—my thinking developed from there, and gradually it became a project: I thought, “No, I will properly research this.”
TP: So how have you gone about it? Basically heading into the Bible? Or have you also looked at what secular thinking and philosophy is—is doing with the whole concept of happiness, because there is a—a big literature about happiness in the secular world.
KB: There is a huge literature. So—so I’ve done both. I’ve looked both into the secular literature and—and into the Bible, and seen what would be my biblical response to what secular people are saying. At—I’m not really interested—there’s a whole lot of what you might call “self-help” stuff, which I think a lot of it is—is not particularly deep and probably not particularly helpful. It’s just cashing in on a certain market.
But there is a lot of actual serious writing on happiness—people thinking about it deeply, are researching it, so there’s a lot of psychological research on happiness, and—and that’s a relatively new thing. So you go back to, I don’t know, the 70s—80s and you don’t actually get academic articles on happiness. It wasn’t considered a kind of serious academic topic. But then there gradually started to be a move in the sort of psychological profession, saying, “Well, if we’re going to be doing more than just helping people get better from illness, what is it we should be positively promoting?” And so, people started researching seriously what is happiness? What—what is happening in people’s minds and brains when we—when they experience what they say is happiness? And just how do you define something like that?
Which is something that philosophy’s talked about for millennia: you go back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, and they’re talking about—well, they’re talking about Greek words, but are often translated as “happiness”. And this is all become part of the discussion: how do you define happiness? And once you’ve defined it, how do you get it? And it’s a massive area now—it is massive—there’s hundreds of thousands of academic studies on it, and—and it’s growing all the time. And as it grows and people do more experiments and more thinking, some of these concepts have started to be better defined as people are working out in more detail exactly what we’re talking about and how emotions work in people and all that sort of thing.
TP: What’s the current state of play, then? How—how are the secular researchers and psychologists, for example, defining happiness? What’s the current thinking on that?
KB: There are two major schools, I—I guess you’d call them—about how you define happiness. One is happiness is an internal feeling, basically. It’s something subjective to you. It’s—it’s an internal state of mind. And this is, I guess, most of the psychological literature would be following that sort of definition. If you’re talking about happiness, you’re talking about how people feel. And to me, that makes a lot of sense. After all, if—I’m happy if I feel happy.
But there—there is a whole other area where people say, “No, that’s not enough to define happiness. It needs to be something more objective as well.” So talking about a happy life has to include certain basic things. So enough—basic health, basic access to human rights, a certain type of political freedom, the abil—ability to have freedom of association, and—and it depends on the person as to what actual things they put in those list of essentials. But you do get a whole lot of writing about, if you want to, for instance, make the society happier, you have to provide certain basic things, and that’s what is happiness.
Now, you can see there’s—there’s benefits to both those things. So the people who say, “Happiness is more to do with objective things,” would say that—that there’s thing that’s called the paradox of the happy slave. So even if a—a slave says that he or she feels happy, they’re not really living a happy life. The other people who are going on the more subjective definition will say, “Well, yeah, if you’re—if you’re happy, you’re happy. And maybe things can be terrible, but you can still find things to be happy about.”
Yes, so I lean more towards the subjective thing, because, to me, it seems it’s confusing—and this isn’t just me; a lot of people would say this: it’s confusing what happiness is with what causes happiness. So I think a lot of those objective circumstances can be things that cause happiness, and—and they’re great to have. I mean, I’m certainly not against the movements that say we ought to be providing these basic things for people. I think that’s—that’s absolutely right. But it’s not the same as being happy. So I—I—I think it’s perfectly possible to conceive of having all sorts of good things in your life, but you’re still miserable.
So for me, when I’m talking about happiness, basically I’m talking about the positive emotion. As to what actually goes into that, psychologists get very fine grained about—generally they talk about it’s—it’s having a positive emotion, it’s having only a low percentage of negative emotions, so—so no one says it’s no—no negatives at all, ’cause that’s just impossible. But having a low percentage of negative emotions and basically being satisfied with your life. You—you judge your life and think, “Okay, yep, this—this is all right. Maybe it could be better. But it—it’s basically all right.”
TP: You—you mention the paradox of the unhappy slave. I guess one of the critiques of the objective view of happiness would be the corresponding paradox of the unhappy rich person—
KB: Exactly! Yes.
TP: —and the fact that in modern western society, where the conditions for a state of wellbeing—where all the various things that might mean a happy life—are increasingly experienced by a very large number of people—hasn’t necessarily led to a subjective feeling of happiness—in fact, to some extent, the reverse: the rates of depression and anxiety are exploding.
KB: Yes. Yes. I think that’s very true. And it’s—and that’s something that seems to have promoted a lot of the academic investigation. It was assumed, I guess, earlier in the twentieth century, that once you had a certain level of living—no, even earlier than that—that—that what sort of society should be aiming for is a certain level of affluence—of people having, you know, their own homes, or, you know, a—a certain level of income, and that sort of thing. And that—that’s what society should be about. That’s what governments should be promoting. And it is largely what governments do promote—better economies. Better incomes for people. And they have differences about how they think that’s best arranged and—and best distributed, but that has largely—most western governments are about—increasing the economy.
TP: Standard of living, as we say.
KB: Yeah, standard of living. But certainly in America—and this is where a lot of the studies are done—in America, after, say, for instance, the second World War, standard of living has increased consistently on average, but levels of happiness have not increased on average. And that’s something that you can test with all sorts of data. And that’s part of what started people saying, “Well, what’s going on here?” And it does seem that there is a certain level of income—of standard of living that below that, it’s very hard to be happy, because if you’re just living in poverty, you’re always uncertain about where your next meal’s coming from. It is very difficult to be happy.
But once you’ve got enough, then having more doesn’t make you happier. And so, this is where a lot of people are starting to question policy, and you may have heard of the country of Bhutan, which talks about gross national happiness, as well as gross national product. And there—there’s a whole Bhutan Centre of Studies , which certainly in the UK, a lot of people are taking that up and saying, “Well, why isn’t the government increasing these things that will actually increase happiness,” because it’s not money that’s going to do it. It’s not increasing your—your basic standards of—of living—of income. That’s not the thing that’s going to make people happier.
TP: So within the secular research stream, what is the suggested path to make people happier? If the government was going to have a Ministry for Happiness, which sounds sinister almost to me [Laughter]—
TP: —but if they were going to have a Ministry for Happiness, what would that ministry, according to the secular research, seek to do to promote happiness? In other words h—how are these books and this research suggesting that happiness actually rises and grows?
KB: If you’re talking on a societal level, for instance, one of the things that have come out of the Centre for—of Bhutan studies, is that people need to be able to trust their leaders. So there was one interesting article that I read that said, “If the government wants to make society happier, stop telling lies!” There you go: it’s simple. Just stop telling lies! That doesn’t seem to have been taken up as a government policy. [Laughter] But, yeah.
TP: No—no—well, it was taken up: they told us that they’re going to stop telling lies!
KB: Oh, I see! Yes, okay. Well, I—
TP: It’s just that they were lying about that anyway!
KB: Yes, yes! So—yeah, people need to be able to trust their leaders. And there are things like that. But that’s interesting, because that’s an internal thing: that’s about how you are perceiving your world. And actually that leads us more into, well, what is happening subjectively in a person which means that their circumstances can make them happy, rather than circumstances just being a thing that’s—that’s out there that may be good, but it’s not necessarily the same as making you happy? And that’s where you get into a lot of the psychological studies—about the fact that how you think has a massive effect on how you feel about life.
Because emotions are—are something that starts quite deep, and this is where the whole theory of emotions has changed over the last century or so: it used to be thought that emotions were just something arise from a bodily reaction to some stimulus. And it’s not necessarily caught up with your cognitive processes. But that theory has really changed. Now, it’s—it’s seen a lot about how you think, what values you hold—what’s your kind of cognitive structure—that really affects how you feel. So what you value as being good, which is a very deep thing—deep-seated—that will affect whether you’re happy about something or sad about something. If you see something that you perceive as being good and that’s part of your life, then it’s—it’s more likely that the—the positive emotions will come out. Whereas if you perceive the things in your life as being bad, that’s going to generate the more negative emotions. But you can change the way you think. You can change what you value. And you can change how much. It’s what you pay attention to becomes really important.
And that’s one of the major theories in psychology about this whole cognitive aspect of emotion. You can alter what you pay attention to, and what you pay attention to has a massive effect on how you feel about life.
Now these attitudes about what we value get loaded into us very early in life. And we often—we’re not even necessarily aware of it. But we have very deep-seated attitudes as to what’s valuable, what’s worthwhile, what life is about, and if you never question them, then you don’t give yourself the opportunity to change.
But it’s something that—it’s probably good to be aware of them, because some of them might be wrong. Some of them you might realise as an adult, “Well, that assumption is not actually true. I’ve discovered more things that mean I need to change my assumptions.” And it can take time to change things that are fairly deep-seated. But it’s a matter of thinking about what you value and thinking about “Is that right? Should I maybe be dwelling more on actually what I know now is valuable and let that shape my character and my preferences and my values?”
So that’s the way in which how you think and what you pay attention to can have a big effect on how you just subjectively experience life.
TP: Well, back to happiness shortly, and especially what the biblical view of happiness is. But first, I want to take a minute to tell you about the Advanced Diploma in Bible and Ministry and Mission that Moore College is now running. It used to be called “the Diploma of Bible and Missions”; it’s now called the “Advanced Diploma” just to recognise the quality of the course and the level of content that—that it covers. It’s a fully accredited one-year course that prepares you to serve Jesus wherever you might be. It’s an opportunity to learn on campus here at Moore College in community, and you’ll not only be taught a foundation in the Bible and theology and ministry, but you’ll be able to choose streams that are specific to your particular context—whether that’s mission or lay ministry or women’s ministry or music ministry.
Now, this course—the Advanced Diploma—is for anyone serving in lay ministry or key members of a local church who want to prepare themselves to share Jesus whether in their workplace or in their church community. It’s for those who are engaging in mission and want a focused preparation for some cross-cultural or global mission. It’s for people serving in women’s ministry who want to engage with historical and social issues with particular relevance for discipling women. And it’s for those serving in music ministry as well, and wanting to engage with all the issues that relate to church music and developing skills in music leadership and in leading our people in praise and thanksgiving and mutual encouragement through song.
To find out more about the Advanced Diploma, just go to moore.edu.au/advanced. If you’re thinking of taking a year out and doing a Bible theology course, the Advanced Diploma is the one to check out at Moore College.
Now, one other thing I also do want to mention that’s coming up shortly, it’s an experiment we’re running here at CCL: we’re going to put on a webinar. Now, if you’ve never been to a webinar and don’t know what a webinar is, it’s kind of like going to a room and having a seminar with a bunch of other people—except you do it all on the web. You do it all virtually. And on April 15th—that’s Monday evening, April 15 th—we’ve had to change this date, so the new date for our webinar is April 15th—we’re going to have an encore presentation of our last CCL event. That was the one on “The elusive joy of Christian community”, and we’re going to run it as a webinar. And in the webinar, I’m going to present some of the material that I presented at that public event, as well as play some video of some of my material and, as well as the talk that Chase Kuhn presented on how to capture the joy of Christian community in our particular churches. And we’re going to have an opportunity to interact together about that and to ask questions and go back and forth—you can do all that in a webinar context.
If you’d like to part of this webinar, it’s free. We’re giving it a try to see how it goes. Just go across to the website—that’s ccl.moore.edu.au—all the details are there. You can register, you’ll get an email with all the information and where to click to join the webinar when the time comes. But please join us for this webinar. It’s going to be on Monday April 15th at 7:30pm—that’s Eastern Standard Time here in Australia. We’d love you to join us for our webinar experiment.
In the meantime, let’s get back to the subject of happiness, and let’s turn from the analysis of the secular research on happiness to what the Bible itself says of happiness. Does God want us to be happy?
KB: Yes, as I turned to the Bible, it’s—well, for instance, there’s no biblical word in the Hebrew or the Greek that is consistently translated “happiness”. English translations differ, but there’s—there’s nothing that you would just automatically say, “Well, that—that’s happiness.” And there’ve been different traditions of—of how you translate words. So there’s a certain word, for instance, in the Psalms, we find—you say—some translations say, “Blessed is the man who,” you know, what is it, someone?
TP: “Walks not in the counsel of the wicked”—
KB: Yeah, I knew he was walking in the counsel of something!
TP: [inaudible] In Psalm 1. Yes.
KB: Yes. How do you translate that word, “Blessed”? I mean, a lot of them just say, “It’s ‘blessed’.” There are some translations that say, “No, that’s ‘happy’.” So what exactly are we talking about there? And of course, then, it depends on your definition of happiness. Are you saying that it’s a certain objective circumstance—that that man has the right circumstances in his life—he’s doing the right things—
TP: And he has now experienced those. He’s—
TP: He has received these good things and he now has them.
TP: He’s blessed with them, in a sense.
KB: That’s right. Yes. He has them. But is this a comment on his internal emotional state? Well, in that case, I think, not necessarily. But it would be perfectly understandable if he did feel positive about the fact that he’s got all these good things. That becomes interesting when you look, for instance, at the Beattitudes, where it’s—I mean, it’s a Greek word now, but that—the Greek word is the—was generally accepted that is the right Greek translation for that Hebrew word, and so Jesus is saying the same thing: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” Well, that doesn’t sound like a very good circumstance! So is that saying, in that case, you can’t translate it “happy” under any circumstances, because it’s not a good circumstance, and you can’t imagine people feeling good about it either. So why is it that Jesus chose that word to use?
I think it’s because Jesus is commenting on the fact that it’s not actually your objective circumstances which you value. Because even in—in that case, where awful things might be happying—happening to you, yet you can still be positive about it because you know your reward is in heaven and that’s definite. And it means that you are in him, which is a great thing to happen. So as—as you look at happiness in the Bible, you can say, “Yes, it’s there.” But the definition of what causes it and what you value and so therefore what make—might make you feel happy—that changes when you know Christ.
There’s also a lot that’s very consistent with what the secular researchers are discovering, which is not surprising because there—they are researching God’s creation and God tells the truth about his creation, so it’s not surprising that secular researchers are discovering these things. So there are certainly on whatever definition of happiness you have, the Bible talks about the very objectively good things that we have: God blesses us. He blesses us with all sorts of created goods, and the Bible talks about them, the—the goods of nature, the goods of provision, the goods of friendship and fellowship—and these are all things that are associated with positive emotional words in the Bible. It’s—it’s good to rejoice over God’s blessing. It’s good to be thankful for it. And so, we’ve got lots of objective reason both to say, “Yes, we have good circumstances and it’s right to feel happy about those. It’s right to feel positive about them.”
You’ve also got in the Bible—once you start looking at how are these emotional words constructed, it is actually quite a cognitive view of emotions. Now that’s sort of technical language for it. But it is true that how we think about things and how we value things is very important. So it is right for us to change our values to be in line with God’s values. And that will naturally flow out in certain emotional ways. And if you look at, for instance, what the Apostle Paul does, he—he talks about, you know, whatever—what’s noble, what’s excellent—think about these things. Well, that’s excellent advice, because that’s what we should be thinking about. What we pay attention to is important both for how we feel and for how we are constructing our internal lives.
And if you look at Paul’s letters, that’s what he pays attention to. He’s always bringing us back to God and what he has done—to the—the truths of salvation—to the great things that we are thankful for. And Paul does talk about how glad he is about the fellowship he has amongst Christians. He really appreciates his friendships and the people who have helped him. But what he appreciates particularly about them is their faith and the—their growth in godliness. So you can see Paul is paying attention to these ultimately valuable things, and I think you come—you see that coming out in the kind of emotional language he uses. He really cares about people. And he rejoices over them.
So even if life is objectively difficult, as Paul’s life certainly was at times, he can still rejoice, because he’s paying attention to the good things that are always true.
TP: So would you say that the—the way you’re seeing the Bible speak about happiness, as it were, is the positive emotional response we have to thinking clearly and rightly about the good things that God has given us? How—how about that for a definition?
KB: Yeah, that works! That—that’s—yeah. We certainly should be thankful for the created blessings that we have. But also we—it’s not that happiness is the most important thing in that sense. In fact, there will be times when it’s quite appropriate to feel sad emotions, because it is a fallen world and sad things happen, and we should mourn with those who mourn. It’s not necessary or right always to be feeling really positive. In fact, that could be entirely insensitive. And quite unhealthy.
But I guess what the Bible does teach us is that there are—there are things that are always true, which are always good. And it’s right to pay attention to those things. God is always there, he’s always loving, he is always forgiving us our sins, and he has objectively sent Christ to save us—to—which will mean eternal blessedness with him. And that’s something we should think about. We should concentrate on—pay attention to that, because that will always be true, even when created things let us down. And they will let us down: created things decay, they fail. People can bring us great joy, but they can let us down. They can fail us. They’re sinful. They will sin against us. And people die. There will be reason for mourning in this world, but there will still be things that we can look forward to and that we have now that are always true and always wonderful. And none of those things can separate us from the love of God. Which is a great thing to think about.
I think part of our problem—you mentioned before that in our great affluence in the West, we seem actually, in some ways, to be getting more miserable. And I think that’s because it—it means we take for granted blessings and we get discontent about the blessings that we don’t have, and we fail to pay attention to blessings that we do have. And so—and, if anything, the—the Bible keeps telling us, “Pay attention to the blessings that you have, because they are wonderful, and we should always be thankful.”
TP: It’s also true that if the way you think about everything will be related to your internal state—your sense of positive emotion or not—if you have a distorted or lopsided or—or misconceived vision of everything—for example, if you exclude God from the picture of your life and you think that by accumulating certain things and having certain things and doing certain things that that will constitute a—a blessed and happy life, and give me the satisfaction I want, you—you’ve bought into a lie. You’ve bought into something that is fundamentally untrue and doesn’t fit with reality.
TP: And so you find that having im—immersed yourself in that project, you get to the top of the tree—you reach the top of the mountain—and you look around and you say, “Is this all there is? This is miserable!” Which is just the common experience of—of western men and women.
KB: We see it happening all the time. I mean, we see that in the celebrity interviews and, yes, all sorts of things.
And yet, we fail to learn from it. But what the Bible does give us is the true picture, as you’re saying: it’s giving us the truth about the world. These are not the most important things. And they will fail to satisfy, because they—they will fail in themselves. Yeah, they are not the ultimate good.
And so, happiness, in itself, which a lot of people make happiness it—in itself as the object of life. That’s what life is for. That’s what we should be aiming for, and the most important thing to have. No, it’s the most important thing to have; it’s a good thing to have! And it’s good to have especially when it’s based on what is actually true about the world. And that’s when it’s most reliable—is when it’s based on the true view of the world. But if we have a false view of the world, yes, at some point, it’s going to fall down, and it will not satisfy, because it’s not real.
TP: Can I flip that ’round: if you’re a Christian person and you’re rarely, if ever, happy in the sense of the range of positive emotions that you’ve discussed—joy, thankfulness, gladness, satisfaction, peace, perhaps—is there something wrong?
KB: Now, that’s a very loaded question. I would say, first of all, we are not saved by our emotional responses. You can be a person who’s miserable your whole life, and you don’t even necessarily understand why. You’re still saved by the blood of Christ, which is something objectively done for you.
You can be a person who, even though you are saved and you know the truth, you’ve just never particularly thought about what you should be paying attention to. And after all, what impacts us on a daily basis all the time are the messages from the world—the advertising, which is very cleverly and specifically designed to make you feel discontent. And—
TP: And that if you only buy this, then you’ll be …
TP: … happy!
KB: It is deliberately constructed to give you a false view of what you need and what will make you happy. So if you’re not noticing that and deliberately challenging it, you can fall into very unhelpful habits.
So, for instance, being thankful is something that the Bible tells us we should always do. And it’s something that secular psychologists will say is very good for you. If you want to be happier, that is one of the key things you can actually do to make yourself happier is, you know, for instance, every night before you go to bed, write down three things that you’re thankful for.
Now, I would have said as a Christian, “Well, of course I’m thankful. I’m thankful for all sorts of things, and I’m—I’m thankful for salvation and this and that.” But how often did I actually stop to think about that? It was something that I could say, “Yes, it’s true,” but it was kind of in the background of my mind And it wasn’t until I started setting aside time where I would deliberately think about “What am I thankful for and why?” and I would write down “These are the things that I’m thankful for.” Which kind of makes it a—even more powerful, because I’m—I’m kind of making it objective to myself: I’m forcing myself to think about that.
That did actually make a difference to my internal state—my internal feelings. So, I—I’m quite sure that there are a lot of Christians, because I was one of them, who would say, “Yes, this is absolutely true to all those things that I’ve said”, but don’t actually put aside the time to pay attention to the good things of God. Or don’t put aside enough time. You know, maybe during the few minutes in the sermon that you’re actually concentrating on. Maybe during—there—there are a few questions in the Bible Study that particularly hit you. But by far the majority of your week is actually spent with your mind on the day-to-day details. “Oh, I’m worried about this. So what about the mortgage and who’s going to take the kids to school tomorrow, and—” Which of course are things that you have to think about, because you—you—you have to be sensible. But do you actually take the time to pay attention to the things of God?
TP: It’s really interesting to me that—that thankfulness in the Bible is less common than thanks giving, if I can put it that way—that when the idea of thanks and thankfulness comes up, it’s very—it’s very often phrased in terms of giving thanks. In the Psalms, if I can remember my Hebrew, I’d remember the word, but it’s gone. But the word that we usually translate as “giving thanks” is very closely connected to the idea of confession—of—of testifying to the good things I’ve received. And it’s—it—that seems to me to relate to what you’re saying—that appreciating the good things and learning to think more about the good things—pay attention to the good things—precedes from actively testifying to their existence—to writing them down, as you said—to speaking thanks to God for them—speaking thanks to another person for them. The more that we testify and give thanks to people—to God—about the good things things, the more that they are brought to our attention—the more that they’re front of mind—the more that they—the more that we own that—
TP: —that we’re thankful for them.
TP: It’s not—it’s not just a general vague kind of dispersed attitude of thankfulness.
TP: It’s actually paying attention to these good things and giving thanks for them.
KB: Yes. Yes, precisely. I mean, the fact that we have the Psalms—those are people who paid attention to the good things of God and wrote them down to remind everyone else of them. And I think—I mean—that’s a—that’s a useful thing I find to do as well, is if I am feeling overwhelmed by circumstances, I—I can honestly say that. I mean, after all, the Psalms are very honest about how distressing the world can be. But then turn to God and remember the things of God that are always true—that I am thankful for. And that puts the circumstances in perspective—that they may be bad, but they don’t have to be overwhelming.
If we get in the habit of doing this—if we are shaping our minds through what we are deliberately paying attention to—through deliberately remembering the good things that are always true—that will stay with us, even when circumstances get tough. But if you wait until the circumstances are tough, it’s very hard to do at that point. It is very hard not to be overwhelmed by the difficulties. So it is important that when things are going well, we train ourselves in paying attention to the eternal things. Yes, being thankful about the things—the circumstances that are going well, of course, but also make sure you’re not just resting on those—that you are always remembering the—the good things of God that will be always true.
TP: Final question, Kirsty, as you’ve thought about all these things, how’s it affected you personally? What’s it made you feel personally? And—and how has it affected your own thinking about your own happiness?
KB: Well, I can say that the—the activity of going through the Bible, and, for instance, I looked at every single verse that had the word “rejoice” in it in the different languages. That is a fantastic thing to do! That just makes you feel so good at the end of it. As you see, there—it is very frequent. And there is so much reason to rejoice. So that in itself has just been a wonderful experience, researching this. And that has taught me that I do need to pay more attention to the good things that God has done. I—I both—I—I need to pay attention to the good created things I have. And that has subjectively helped me as I’ve—I start noticing more how many good things I have in my life. And it has stopped me feeling discontent about the things that I don’t have. It just—they’re still there, but it just doesn’t worry me as much as it used to. And that’s because I’m just not paying attention to them so much.
But it’s also taught me not to place all my attention in created things, even the good things, because the real delight in knowing God has just impacted me more and more—that spending time thinking about God—just about God! God is absolute goodness. It’s meditating on that for a while is a wonderful thing to do. So that’s what—yeah, it has done for me. It has shown me what to think about and how important it is to spend time thinking about the good things of God.
TP: Well, thanks so much for being with us today on the Centre for Christian Living podcast. And thanks to Kirsty Birkett for coming in and sharing her research on the question of happiness.
If you have any questions that come out of today’s podcast or, indeed, about any aspect of living the Christian life, don’t hesitate to get in touch: send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks to those of you who have been sending in your questions. The first of our Q&A episodes—our bonus Q&A episodes—will be coming up shortly. It will be the next episode you get sometime in the middle of this coming month. But keep sending in your questions and we’ll answer them as best we can.
Look forward as well to seeing some of you at those two events that are coming up soon. That’s the webinar on April 15th: it’s an encore presentation of “The [elusive] joy of Christian community” and “[A] very short course on Christian ethics” on Saturday May 25th here at Moore College. You can get all the details about both events at our website: one more time, that’s ccl.moore.edu.au.
Well, thanks again for being with us. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.