by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

March, 2008

A while back I was watching television when I saw a commercial that featured a young woman who was having a “bad day.” Her grocery bag ripped, spilling its contents down a flight of stairs, her car broke down, a passing car splashed her, and the heel broke off her shoe. Through it all, though, she wore a sunny, beatific smile. In my naiveté, I thought to myself, “I’ll bet she just found Jesus,” and “I wonder if this is a United Methodist commercial?” But in the end, it turned out that the reason for her happiness was a new gambling casino. There’s a similar commercial that features a young man. He gets caught in the rain, yelled at by his boss, dumped by his girlfriend, and loses a loved one and through it all, even at the funeral, he wears the same smile, except that, in his case, the smile simply looks goofy rather than necessarily happy. The clear message of the commercials is the same though: gambling—or at least the various attractions of the casino—will make you happy.

Unlike the people in the casino commercial, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, a former academic who originally studied biochemistry, is said to be the happiest man in the world. Ricard is the French interpreter for the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Ricard says that he “learned” to be happy through meditation and that he can teach others how to do the same. Scientists have studied the activity of his brain and discovered that he can stimulate activity in the left pre-frontal cortex (the “happy” part of the brain) while suppressing activity in the right (the “sad” part).

Scientists tell us that happiness is the result of chemicals called “endorphins” that are produced in the body and cause a feeling of well-being through their effect on the brain. “Endorphins” are natural opiates, similar to morphine, that the body produces in response to pain. In fact, the term “endorphin” means “morphine produced naturally in the body.” Another chemical in the body, a neurotransmitter called “norepinephrine,” is also responsible for happiness. And chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, which explains why some folks like the stuff so much.

Cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip, said that “Happiness is a warm puppy.” As a past and present dog owner, I can testify to the truth of that one. He also wrote that “Happiness is waking up, looking at the clock and finding that you still have two hours left to sleep.” I don’t know about that last one myself. Personally, I find that I can never go back to sleep in those situations. It’s true, though, that various things in our lives bring about positive emotions.

But those of us who live for God have a different notion of happiness than the rest of the world. When he was governor of Judea, Nehemiah told the people, “‘And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” (Neh. 8:10b ESV). Real happiness comes from God. It strengthens us for times of stress and adversity. Jesus told his disciples, “‘These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.’” (John 15:11 ESV). God wants us to be happy—not just happy but filled with joy. And Paul wrote to the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23 ESV). Genuine happiness comes from the Holy Spirit and from living in accord with God’s will. It is a gift from God.

Everyone wants to be happy. There are people all around us who are searching for happiness. They’ve looked everywhere, tried everything. They’ve believed the “happiness peddlers” like the casino owners who promise to give them a measure of joy. The difference is that we have found real, lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t come from chemicals or casinos but from God. We owe it to everyone around us to share the “secret” of true happiness. Our secret shouldn’t be a secret at all. We should tell everyone we meet.

“You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psa. 16:11 ESV.)

Copyright © 2008 by David Phelps