God wants us to be happy.
Of course, that’s not all there is to life, to be happy for happiness’s sake. God is more concerned about His people being good and doing good as vessels of His creation. But if we are not happy, everything – including being a good Catholic – becomes more difficult. Negative thoughts, a lack of confidence, and disconnect with oneself and with others create barriers to reaching one’s full potential. On the other hand, happy people have the energy, enthusiasm, and focus to live out their lives in the manner which God intends for us to do.
So, we know that God probably does want us to be happy, and we understand that happiness clears the way for authentic spiritual living. The question is, how can we become happier?
Dr. Laurie Santos has grappled with this question throughout her professional career. A Professor of Psychology at Yale University, she finally decided to put her research to use by creating a class called “The Science of Happiness.” In short time, the class became the largest in school history, with just under a quarter of the entire Yale student body registered.
Dr. Santos was encouraged to share her secrets with a world desperate for her teachings, so she developed a class on Coursera, a free online university open to the public. As the world suffered through a pandemic, political turmoil, and other societal disruptions, enrollment quickly doubled, quadrupled, and more. By the end of 2020, more than three million people had signed up for her Coursera course!
A few months ago, in an interview with Newsweek, Dr. Santos distilled her lessons on happiness into five key practices. For each principle, I’ve provided a Bible verse (or two) to illustrate that these practices do in fact align with what God wants – and expects – from us.
#1 Get Social
We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:25)
In a 2002 happiness survey, psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman discovered that one thing separated the top 10% of happy people from others. Happy people were more social.
Come early and stay late for Sunday Mass. Join a committee, choir, or some other organization at church. And if you’re not yet sick of Zoom, make it a routine to chat with your relatives and friends who live out of town.
#2 Give Thanks
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
People who show gratitude tend to be happier and show lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. One study found that health care workers who journal their gratitude show less stress and depression. Another body of research demonstrated that people suffering from chronic pain experience better sleep and mood when they practice gratitude.
Keep a journal. Send a thank-you note to someone, even if their act of kindness took place months or even years ago. Always be sure to say thanks, wave, or smile, even for the little things in life – holding a door, a driver’s courtesy, or a compliment.
By the way, you will not be surprised to learn that the concept of thankfulness appears almost 200 times in the Bible!
#3 Be in the Moment
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)
Harvard psychologists have learned that people spend more than 40 percent of their time mind-wandering—not paying attention to the here and now. Living in the past is unproductive and a far-off future is never guaranteed. We must find joy in each day we have been blessed with.
Many people swear by meditation. Although I don’t do it, I certainly commit myself to noticing what the world around me looks, sounds, and feels like. “My coffee tastes great this morning.” “This shower feels nice and warm.” There are good, pleasurable things all around us, if we just take a little time to pay attention to them.
#4 Rest and Move
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, to eat bread earned by hard toil – all this God gives to his beloved in sleep. (Psalm 127:2)
Studies too numerous to list demonstrate the links between physical fitness and mental health. When you exercise, it increases adrenaline, endocannabinoid, dopamine, and endorphins, which are associated with happiness and confidence, and which reduce anxiety, stress, and physical pain. In addition, all of the other happiness habits depend upon getting a full night’s rest, every night.
Enjoy a regular walking routine or some other workout schedule. At night, read a book instead of using electronic devices. Set and maintain a consistent bedtime routine.
#5 Be Kind
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. (Luke 6:35)
The science says that we receive happiness when we are kind to others. People who share more of their time and money in charity and random acts of kindness are reportedly the happiest.
Also, be kind to yourself! People who are compassionate toward themselves are more likely to reach their happiness goals than those who impose harsh self-criticism and unrealistic expectations. The past year and a half has been pretty tough; remember that you’re human and you’re doing the best you can.
Chances are that you are already engaged in some of these five key principles. Try doing something new in each category, and before long you just might find that living a happy Catholic life is not nearly as daunting as you thought.
Oh, and if you’d like to check out Dr. Laurie Santos’s Coursera class, look for “The Science of Well-Being” on Coursera.org.
By Andrew Crane
Parishioner and Member of our Dignity of Life Committee
Source: Santos, L. (2020, December 22). 5 things that will make you happier. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/2021/01/08/laurie-santos-yale-happiness-professor-5-things-that-will-make-you-happier-1556182.html.