What Science and the Bible Say About What Leads to Happiness

I recently stumbled upon the work of behavioral scientist Winfred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which made the New York Times Bestseller list a few years back. I found the basic premise of the book quite interesting in that through her research Gallagher has validated something which the New Testament has been teaching for almost 2000 years.

For Gallagher, it was an unexpected event in her personal life which set her on this journey: she was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced form of cancer. Going into her treatment, she had expected it to be a miserable time, but instead found it to be a surprisingly pleasant period of her life. Although physically uncomfortable, she enjoyed many things during this time, including going on walks, and her personal favorite: an evening martini. This led her to later pursue investigating the role that attention plays in a person’s happiness.

After 5 years of studying this topic, she came away with what she called “a grand theory of the mind:”

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

The biggest factor which leads to happiness, in other words, is what you choose to focus your attention on.

Author Cal Newport, in reference to this says:

This concept upends the way that most people tend to think about their subjective experience of this life. We tend to focus on our circumstances: assuming that what happens to us, or fails to happen, determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes: whether you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding.¹

In other words: our perception of the world and of ourselves is shaped less by our circumstances, and more by what we choose to focus on and pay attention to.

For readers of the Bible, this only serves to confirm what we already know and believe. This is the reason why the Bible says things like:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the reason why Paul the Apostle could write a letter from jail about being full of joy in Jesus; because he took his own advice to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

This is the reason why to those suffering pressure and persecution as a result of their Christian faith, Paul’s advice was to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

As Winfred Gallagher rightly discerned: two people can be facing the same exact circumstances, but what they focus on will determine how they feel about it and deal with it. This has been a trademark of Christianity from its inception. However, as Christians, our focus is not on shallow pleasures and momentary distractions, but we draw from the deep well of hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone! For this reason:

we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Whatever you are going through today, may you fix your eyes on Jesus, and may the hope you find in Him define your reality, giving you joy in the face of anything life brings your way.

Done with School, and a Few Other Things

I love finishing projects that I start. The only thing is, I also really like starting projects. So I sometimes find myself with several long term projects – but over the past few weeks I've been able to finish up a few of them.

For the past several months I was very busy finishing my dissertation for my theology degree. I started at this university when my first child was the same age as my current youngest child: 5 months old. Now, in completing my dissertation, I am done – at least for now… I would like to continue.

The title of my dissertation: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Implications of Epistemology and Culture for Christian Thinking, Practice and Mission

Another thing I've been working on for a while that I was able to complete: During the 10 years that I lived in Hungary I spent a lot of time getting different kinds and levels of residence permits and visas. By the time I left I had permanent residence and a work permit, which I gave up when I moved to the US. No big deal, because I have no plan to move back. But about 2 years ago a friend in Hungary told me that I should look into becoming a Hungarian citizen and that I might meet the requirements for citizenship. I looked into it, and I did – so, a year ago I applied for Hungarian citizenship, and I just found out 2 weeks ago I received it. Last week I traveled to Los Angeles for my naturalization ceremony at the office of the Hungarian Consulate.

Receiving my Hungarian citizenship from Kálmán László, consulate general of Hungary.

I'm not really sure how it will benefit me, but it is meaningful nonetheless. My wife and kids are Hungarian citizens, and I does encourage me to spend more time making sure the kids learn Hungarian and have that identity.

Another long term project we've been working on is getting out of the debt we incurred from the adoption we did. It's been an exercise in budgeting, downsizing and penny pinching, inspired by a Dave Ramsey class, and at the end of June we will have that project complete as well.

I've also finished a few books recently:

The men's group at our church has been going through Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, following a study guide and video series by Eric Metaxas. A lot of the videos refer to Lewis' autobiography, Surprised by Joy, so I picked it up and started reading it. In it, Lewis tells the story of how he became an atheist and then the process by which he turned from atheism to deism and finally to Christianity. “Joy”, spelled with a capital J, is the thing which all people are looking for and get glimpses of throughout their lives in various ways, but which can only be found in and through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Sounds interesting, right? I have to say, Surprised by Joy left me surprised with boredom. I had a really hard time getting through the book, and felt that a lot of the material was indulgent details which had nothing at all to do with the story he was telling. That part though, the story of his journey from a nominal Christian upbringing, to atheism, to deism and finally to Christianity, was truly captivating. The last chapter was particularly good. It's worth reading if you are a CS Lewis fan.

The other book I finished recently was John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent. I heard somewhere that it is good to read fiction because it fuels creativity and imagination in a way that other media does not. I read a lot of non-fiction, particularly theology books and biographies, and so I want to make sure that I read some good fiction from time to time as well and I have it in mind to read classic novels and literature.

The Winter of Our Discontent was interesting, particularly in how it dealt with moral and ethical issues, as well as issues of contentment, and pressures in society which create dissatisfaction. The novel describes how people often cross their own moral and ethical lines to get what they think they want, and when they get it, they are still discontent and often more miserable that they were before. I think it's a great commentary on society and on the fallen human condition.

Ironically, The Winter of Our Discontent and Surprised by Joy have their core theme in common. The only difference is that whereas Steinbeck didn't answer the question of what it is that human beings are ultimately looking for: the true quest beneath all our quests, Lewis did. And although Lewis' writing style is harder to read, Surprised by Joy actually answers the question posed by The Winter of Our Discontent.


I'm enjoying this season.


The Pursuit of Happiness


The Declaration of Independence contains this famous phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happiness is what all people are ultimately seeking.  Including you. Including me. You want to be happy. So do I.

If you really think about it, everything we do is, in one way or another, a pursuit of happiness.

The pursuit of happiness is what motivates people to get married – or not to get married, to have children or not to have children, to choose certain careers or paths in life and not others. It is the reason people abuse substances – and even, as strange as it may sound at first, to commit suicide.

Philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal said:

All people seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they always tend towards this end. The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object (happiness). This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Suicide is the (very misguided!) belief, that one can escape unhappiness here in this life and hopefully find happiness wherever they end up. Still, even this terrible and tragic act is part of the pursuit of happiness.
Sometimes Christians have made a false distinction between happiness and joy. Here is what Joni Eareckson Tada has to say about that:
We are often taught to be careful of the difference between joy and happiness. ‘Happiness,’ it is said, ‘is an emotion which depends on what happens to you (a false etymology).’ Joy, by contrast is supposed to be enduring, stemming from deep within our soul, and which is not affected by circumstances surrounding us. I don’t think God had any such hairsplitting in mind. Scripture uses the terms interchangeably along with words such as “delight” “Gladness” “blessing” – There is no scale of relative spiritual values applied to any of these. Happiness is not relegated to fleshly minded sinners nor joy to heaven-bound saints.

If you ask the average person what they want more than anything else, they will reply:  “I want to be HAPPY!”   “It’s not the only thing I want — but it is at the core of the other things I want.”

If you ask people: “What do you really want for your kids?”  They will say: “I want them to be polite, respectful, successful, responsible” — but why?  Because what they really want is for them to be happy.  The reason they want all those other things for them, is because they believe those things will result in their greater happiness in the long run.
C.H. Spurgeon said this:
My dear brothers, if anyone in the world ought to be happy, we are those people. How boundless our privileges, how brilliant our hopes.
As Christians, in and through Jesus Christ, we have the keys to the happiness we desire and the joy we were made for.
Starting this Sunday at White Fields Church, I will be teaching a series titled: The Pursuit of Happiness, in which we will be studying Paul’s letter to the Philippians with a view of how Paul had the keys to happiness and an indomitable joy even in the midst of dark circumstances.
The graphic art above was done by CryBabyDesign. Check them out for all your graphic design needs.

Advent Meditations: 10 – Christmas Joy


And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. – Luke 2:10-11

What is the joy of this season?    Is it Tradition?  Family?  Giving and receiving?

The thing about each of these, is that the joy of these things is something very temporal and easily lost.

If the joy of Christmas is family, then what about those who have no family?  Does this season hold no joy for them?

If the joy of Christmas is tradition, then what is there for those who have suffered loss of loved ones – or even of financial resources?  For them, Christmas will be pure pain.
If the joy of Christmas is tied to traditions: decorating a house, eating certain foods, doing certain things – then if those things are no longer possible, because you had to give up the house, or because a family member passed away, or any other reason, then Christmas will not be a time of joy, but of pain and heartache.

If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then once again, what about those who have nothing to give and/or no one to receive from?  If the joy of Christmas is in giving and receiving, then Christmas brings loneliness and shame rather than joy.

These things are what are commonly held by many people to be the joys of Christmas, but let me tell you: these should not be – they cannot be – the wellspring of joy that Christmas brings, because it is only a matter of time, before all of these things run dry…and make Christmas a time of pain and bitter longing rather than life-giving joy.

What is the true joy of Christmas?  It is this: A Savior is born to you, who is Christ the Lord.

One of the verses in the Bible that I find most moving is Matthew 1:21:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins – Matthew 1:21

This is the joy of Christmas: that though you were lost, God pursued you and found you!   That though you were without hope, God came near to you to give you hope that extends beyond the grave!  That though you were destined for darkness and death, God broke into time and space to bring you light and life!

That is a joy that doesn’t disappear when financial resources dry up!  That is a joy that doesn’t grow dimmer as loved ones pass away – but rather grows all the more vibrant and beautiful!

May this be the joy of Christmas for you!

And may we not teach our children, whether in word or in deed, to find the joy of Christmas primarily in tradition or in giving or receiving, or even in family – but in the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Advent Meditations: 5 – The Model for Missions

As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – John 17:18

“Christmas is a model for missions and missions are a reflection of Christmas.” – John Piper

The meaning of Christmas is the mission of God: a God who loves and cares so much, that He left Heaven to come and reach out to us with love and truth.

Christmas is a model for missions: God was so moved by love and the conviction that there is something better for us which we desperately need, that He left what was comfortable to Him and at great expense to Himself, came to us, to speak to us in our language, on our level. That is the model of Christian mission both locally and cross-culturally.

Christian mission is a reflection of Christmas: by going out in mission we are imitating our Father and our Lord. We are doing for others what He did for us, albeit obviously not on the same scale.

The purpose of Christmas is joy. God gave us His comfort, that we might have JOY. What a gift!  What a sacrifice, and what love it is that motivates such a sacrifice for the sake of others – others who do not always (or perhaps often) reciprocate that love.

these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. – John 17:13

Not only is the purpose of Christmas joy, but the purpose of Christian mission is joy!   Joy for those who come to know the love of God BUT ALSO: joy for those who participate in the mission.

We were made for mission, and we will only know true joy when we get on board with the one ultimate mission: the only mission which has significance beyond this life and even this world: the mission of God to bring salvation to the world. It is in this mission that we can be truly fulfilled and that is a fountain of joy.