If happiness is the weather, then joy is the climate. An easy way to remember the difference is that climate is what you expect and the weather is what you get, and likewise optimism and joy are what we expect and life is what happens. There may well be unexpected storms and troubles, but our underlying attitude will affect how we experience such events.
One of the ways we can strengthen our sense of optimism and create joy in our lives is through practicing gratitude. Gratitude is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation and to return kindness. Gratitude is expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to what one wants or lacks. Gratitude is getting a great deal of attention as part of Positive Psychology. Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. Gratefulness, and especially expression of it to others, is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.
One of our church members has just returned home after 13 weeks in hospital following a car crash. In the world of modern medicine 13 weeks is a very long time. He was badly smashed up with severe and multiple injuries. He still faces many months of ongoing rehabilitation and his life has been profoundly changed. But it many ways it has remained the same – he is happy. When you talk to him, he is grateful for the care he has received, he is grateful for the cards, visits and well-wishes he has received. He says he is lucky. Lucky to be alive. Lucky he didn’t lose a leg. Lucky to be so loved. He talks of others worse off than himself. People he sees at rehab sessions. He is grateful to believe that God watches over him.
On the other hand, we all know that person who can find something to complain about wherever they go. If they travel, they can complain about lumpy beds and crowded airports. But if they stay home, they complain that they never go anywhere interesting and there’s never anything good on television.
The old hymn advised us to “count your blessings, name them one by one”, but we may not have realised that in this platitude lies one of the most significant ways of increasing joy. One study found that those who regularly recorded what they were thankful for in “gratitude journals” showed higher levels of optimism, enthusiasm, attentiveness, and energy, and they felt better about their life as a whole.
Of course before Positive Psychology there was Positive Theology. The apostle Paul advised his readers to “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
Our deepest sense of gratitude comes through grace, with the awareness that we have not earned, nor do we deserve all that we’ve been given.
This is the gospel, and it’s good news.
Brian Spencer, Minister