Heather spent a few years establishing herself professionally before starting a family. At the age of 35, she and her husband decided to have a child, and she soon became pregnant. She delivered a healthy baby girl. But a few days after giving birth, Heather began to feel sad and frequently tearful. She had no appetite, experienced insomnia, and felt worthless. Most devastating to her self-esteem as a new mother, she lost interest in taking care of her little girl. Her husband and mother pushed her to see a psychiatrist.
At the doctor’s office, it became apparent that she was experiencing an abundance of negative thoughts: She felt that she had failed her daughter because she had not been allowed to give birth in a “natural” environment. Her baby did not latch during nursing, and she had to begin feeding her formula. She considered formula less healthy and saw this as another failure. Her little girl cried during the night, and she felt incapable of soothing her. Each negatively viewed event reinforced the thought that she was not a good mother. Heather succumbed to these feelings of inadequacy and felt unable to get out of bed. Caught in a repetitive cycle of thought rumination, she rehearsed over and over the things that proved she was an unfit mother.
The doctor prescribed antidepressants to stabilize her emotions and advised that a very important part of healing would be her participation in counseling. There she would learn how to change her thoughts and build skills that would help her regain a sense of adequacy as a new mother. This, in turn, would foster a happy, contented attitude.
Jen was of similar age and had also recently given birth to a baby girl. Like Heather, she also experienced symptoms of depression after the delivery and went to see her doctor. She was also prescribed antidepressants. In Jen’s case, negative thoughts did not take a firm hold because she had learned that these thoughts do not represent reality. After a number of weeks, in consultation with her psychiatrist, she was able to drop the medicine and did not need an extended period of therapy. Throughout her time of treatment, Jen chose not to believe the negative thoughts that popped into her head. Instead, she reassured herself each time negative emotions presented themselves.
During this time, her husband was unemployed, but she used to say: “He is qualified and is looking for work. I know he will find something. In the meantime, he is very good with the baby and will take good care of her after I return to work.” When she considered her depressive symptoms, she affirmed: “These thoughts and feelings are nasty and painful, but I am taking the prescribed medication.” Each time she felt overwhelmed, she reminded herself, “I know that God is with me, and He has shown me His mercy many times in the past.”
Why couldn’t Heather “make” herself happy just as Jen did? What prevented Heather from seeing the positive side of her troubles? Was Jen genetically predetermined to deal successfully with adversity while Heather was naturally predestined to unhappiness?
In many similar cases, there are genetic determinants. Researchers from the University of California and the University of Missouri1 examined studies on the long-term happiness and other traits of identical and fraternal twins. They concluded that about 50 percent of the desirable state of happiness—or the natural extent to which we are inclined to be joyous or despondent—is due to genetics. They called this inclination the set point, and it is assumed to be fixed and stable over time. The remainder of the happiness pie, however, is divided into one’s surrounding circumstances (10 percent) and one’s own choices, decisions, and agency (40 percent). While our inherited set point, or inclination toward happiness or despondency, is real, we must also recognize that we can control asignificant portion of our sense of well-being. We are told by the apostle Paul to “rejoice.” Rejoicing focuses our attention on the things that we can change.
Current times seem filled with more sadness and less happiness. A recent macrostudy led by Jean Twenge2 from San Diego State University used data from over 200,000 adolescents (ages 12–17) and almost 400,000 young adults (ages 18–25). Participants were asked to rate their distress over the past month in terms of feeling nervous, hopeless, restless, fidgety, sad, or depressed; feeling that nothing could cheer them up; feeling that everything was an effort; and feeling down on themselves, no good, or worthless. They also reported their frequency of suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts. Figures were compared with prior records, and it was found that over the 2005–2017 period, depression rates increased 52 percent in adolescents and, over the 2009–2017 period, 63 percent in young adults. Rates in adults (26 and older) also increased but moderately by comparison.
Against these odds, we must make a concerted effort to become happier people. This is particularly true for Christians because we can know the joy of salvation.
how to rejoice
Joy is incompatible with depression. A joyful individual cannot be depressed. Paul’s appeal for joy in Philippians 4:4 resonates with messages from previous paragraphs in the same letter “Rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:18); “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1). In Philippians 4:4, the apostle adds “always,” which could be rendered as “all the time.” This message invites the reader to do whatever it takes to make joy a predominant emotion, thus keeping depression away.
But is this a fair admonition? Are we able to rejoice at will, or are we subject to genetic traits and other circumstances outside of our control? Consider the evidence of MRI readings that show brain activity is different when people follow instructions to worry or not to worry about something. We can conclude from this that people are, to a large extent, able to regulate their emotions. Research shows that people can learn to exercise significant control over their moods. People can learn how to adopt and maintain an attitude of happiness and act in certain uplifting ways according to personal choice. In fact, psychotherapists today spend much time teaching clients how to build positive feelings and emotions by thinking and acting intentionally in certain ways.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, director of the Happiness Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside, is a leading figure in positive psychology. She and her team conduct research to identify behaviors and attitudes that help people experience happier moods. Paul was not being unreasonable when he urged his readers to rejoice. To improve your state of joy, try the following activities based on Lyubomirsky’s recommendations:3
1. Express gratitude. Write a letter of appreciation, make a phone call, or pay a visit to thank someone for something specific that he or she has done for you. These simple acts can bring positive change. Experimental studies reveal that men and women, no matter their age or health, who offer appreciation feel better than those who receive it, just as Jesus Himself affirmed (Acts 20:35).
2. Practice optimism. Optimism is very desirable and can lead to a stable sense of well-being. Optimism is not illusory or unable to recognize drawbacks. Rather, it focuses on the bright side of things while trying to repair what is wrong. Perhaps that is why it is said that a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, but an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.
3. Avoid overthinking. A worrisome thought, when rehearsed again and again, is like someone trying to go to sleep in a state of alertness—
tossing over and over to no avail. You must break the cycle. How? Psychologists teach patients to distract themselves by changing activities (for example, calling someone or working out). If a problem is real, instead of worrying, jot down possible solutions. If there seems to be no solution, identify healthier ways (other than worry) to respond to the problem. Ask someone to help you.
4. Practice random acts of kindness. It is well known that someone who is discouraged or affected by depression can feel better by helping someone else in need. This is a way of following in the steps of Jesus, who “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil” (Acts 10:38).
5. Forgive. Extending forgiveness is a key factor in happiness. Experts recommend it—and not necessarily for moral reasons. However, when forgiveness is guided by moral principles, it becomes more authentic and complete because then forgiveness is granted wholly, unconditionally, and out of the love that comes as a gift from God.
6. Savor the small things. Expensive or impressive pastimes do not lead to joy. Rather, learn to observe and enjoy the simple things in life: a natural landscape, a good friend, a great book or music, prayers of thanksgiving, a simple meal, or a relaxing walk. All of these activities can improve your mood.
7. Practice the religious life. Contemporary psychology recognizes the health benefits of religion, and the American Psychological Association now has a division of Religion and Spirituality. Prayer, churchgoing, outreach, sacred reading, and fellowship with other believers have been studied empirically and found to favor well-being.
8. Nourish relationships. Connecting with others improves your mood. Sharing good news can be a source of happiness. In the parable of the lost coin, the Bible explains: “And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me’ ” (Luke 15:9; emphasis added).
9. Find and practice your personal strengths and virtues. The happiest people are those who understand their strengths (such as persistence, the ability to communicate, or logical skills) and virtues
(such as compassion, fairness, authenticity, or humility) and how to use them to benefit others. This brings to mind the gifts of the Spirit referred to in 1 Corinthians 12. These gifts are a path to well-being and allow us to better serve God and others.
Julian Melgosa, PhD, is associate director of Education for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and his wife, Annette Melgosa, EdD, is a strategic planning and research analyst for IT Services at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
1. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change,” Review of General Psychology 9, no. 2 (2005): 111–131.
2. Jean M. Twenge et al., “Age, Period, and Cohort Trends in Mood Disorder Indicators and Suicide-Related Outcomes in a Nationally Representative Dataset, 2005–2017,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 128, no. 3 (2019): 185–199, https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000410.
3. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness,” 111–131.