Making Happiness A Habit

BY LESLIE PARROTT

When Thomas Jefferson included “the pursuit of happiness” among our inalienable rights, he pinpointed two ideas that are important for all of us who want to live out our days with inward joy. First,
happiness is a process, a pursuit, a way of life. Happiness is habit. And the habit of happiness can dominate all our other attitudes. Second, people will interfere with our inalienable right to be happy if
we allow them to. If external circumstances determine inward happiness, then our right to be happy can be invaded at any time. If our happiness is controlled from within, we are in charge. Self-contained happiness is happiness anyhow!

No one is happy who doesn’t make a basic personality decision to be -happy. I have often wished people who bugged me would straighten up and fly right. At that point I still thought my unhappiness was
somebody else’s fault. But ultimately I learned that happiness was my decision. Until I took responsibility for my own happiness, I was persuaded there was a church I could pastor that would make me happier than I was, or at least, less unhappy. Then the idea got through to me that I could be happy anyhow. Happiness, I learned, is from the inside out, not from the outside in. Happiness is a decision, or a lot of decisions one after the other in sequence. Happiness is a habit.

The Less Than Perfect Christmas Story

Can you imagine for a moment how the Christmas story might have been written if Mary and Joseph had not the capacity to adjust to things beyond their control? To begin with, Mary was pregnant. Joseph
could have had her stoned or he may have thought about sending her into some distant city like Rome, where she could have been lost in the crowd. But Joseph followed the angel’s command, and they were married.

Mary and Joseph were not only enduring the emotional pressures of nine months of pregnancy, they were trying to establish their home, operate a business that must certainly have been undercapitalized and learn how to live with each other on a seven-days-a-week basis. Mary and Joseph coped with all these pressures while continuing to contemplate the meaning of the angel’s message about the birth of
Jesus. Further, they were forced to interrupt their business and go to Bethlehem as the first step of a government plan to raise taxes. Just what they needed!

I can imagine Mary and Joseph leaving their honeymoon abode behind as they traveled early to Bethlehem with Mary riding on the back of a little burro. No easy ride. I know some women who can hardly ride in a Buick while they are waiting for the birth of a child–let alone the back of a donkey!

At night they did not stop in a rooming house or motel as people might today. They stopped along the road, cooked with makeshift arrangements, on the hard ground, and made the best of a difficult
situation. Even if one has good attitudes, the ground can get mighty hard before morning, especially for Mary, who was more than eight months pregnant. This young woman, who was probably no more than 15, was a long way from home, worn out, and perhaps emotionally drained.

Finally, they arrived in Bethlehem and there were no rooms. Joseph finally found the stable space, which may have cost an exorbitant price. Perhaps the innkeeper promised he would clean out the animal filth and cover the floor with fresh straw.

I can imagine Mary transforming her husband’s disconsolate look with her smile of acceptance. “Joe, let’s take it.” And that night her Son was born.

Then, a paranoid old king in Jerusalem was beside himself with rage when he learned a baby was born whom some believed to be a future king. Like any Oriental despot would do, he decreed that all boy babies under two years of age were to be slain. Again, Mary and Joseph were faced with a major adjustment.

I can see them again, making their way out of the city of Bethlehem. Their flight must have been in the night, heading for the Gaza strip and into Egypt not far from the present-day Suez Canal. And here, according to scholars, they raised their Son for the first four to six years of his life, while they lived among foreigners who had strange ways and spoke a different tongue.

Mary and Joseph adjusted to many pressure points including early pregnancy, moving, culture shock, and limited finances.

All these problems called for major adjustments if Mary and Joseph were to keep their relationship solid and beautiful. Like every other married couple on earth, they had only one real option: adjust or
self-destruct.

“Adjusters” in the Beatitudes

People with rigid personalities find it difficult to change their ways, accept new ideas, or make new friends. Others adapt easily, roll with the flow of events, and lead with their understanding instead of
an iron-willed resistance.

Since life requires many adjustments, the person who doesn’t look on change as a threat will fare better than one who does. Maybe that is why Jesus related his axioms on happiness (Matthew 5:3-5) to the poor in spirit, those who knew how to mourn, and the meek. These attitudes suggest people who are willing and able to adjust to things beyond their control. To the poor in spirit, Jesus promised eternal dividends of citizenship in the kingdom of God; to those who mourned, personal emotional comfort; and to the meek, the earth as their inheritance. The stakes are high but well worth the investment of learning how to accept the inevitable, to look positively on a negative experience.

The Need for Sensitivity

I have seen the connection between sensitivity and happiness at work in a little-known Salvation Army officer in Delhi, India. Major Cook has the care of more than 60 unwanted children, some of them
maimed and all of them deprived of any love but hers. With some help from the older children, this single woman cares for the children and maintains her quarters. She sleeps with the head of her bed by the door leading into the nursery so she will be awakened by the cry of any of her dozen or more infants. Even in the darkness she can identify each baby by its cry and usually tell what the matter is. Her happiness is an inspiration to all who know her. Sudden media fame would not make her any happier than she already is.

The person with the habit of happiness is more interested in extending mercy than dispensing justice. He finds more joy in forgiveness than in heavy-handed justice. The person with the habit of happiness tends to have open, transparent motives. She is easily entreated, peaceable, and accepting.

Insensitivity may cause a husband to use a powerful voice to override his wife’s effort to speak. This is a crude technique we learn for grabbing control of the conversation. Patronizing one’s spouse with
false kindness is really a put down which needs to be put out.

A lifetime of practicing insensitivity will not be overcome easily, but sensitivity can be learned. There are specific things we can do to improve our level of sensitivity:

We can listen better by concentrating more fully on what people say.

We can concentrate on the feelings behind the words, which are often more important than the words themselves.

We may practice empathy (the capacity to put ourselves as completely as possible into someone else’s frame of reference, stand in their shoes and analyze the situation as we believe they do).

We can believe that Christ our Lord is both our model and our Source. He will not leave us helpless.

GROWING UP HAPPY

Parents can teach negative thinking to their children, who then transmit the virus to grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Neurotic mothers often have neurotic daughters. Angry men may have angry sons.
All of us who have children are concerned about how we may help them grow up happy.

The Magic of Unconditional Love

When we got ready to have a family, we thought we had a great idea in planning for two children close together. This would make it possible for them to grow up as companions. The only thing we forgot
about was sibling rivalry. At our house, we had it wall-to-wall with two sons only twenty months apart.

The older boy, typical of first sons, easily internalized the value system of his father. He became a good student, earning continued approval by writing good papers, getting high marks, and keeping a good
grade point average.

But the second son looked at his brother’s success in academia and rejected the whole idea He refused to compete and turned to athletics. He played football and soccer and attended a boarding school for tennis players for three summers. His grades were those of a gentleman, or not quite that good.

Like other parents, we always gave the oldest son greater responsibility and commensurate authority. When the two children were sent off together, we said to the older son, “Here is the money. You take care of it. And watch over your little brother, and don’t let anything happen to either of you.” The “little” brother looked at all this display of trust in someone slightly older, with whom he felt equal, and his teeth were set on edge.

When my second son was 1l, I set him down, week after week, on Thursday night and drilled him on his spelling words until he could spell each one of them correctly. Then he would go to school the next
day, miss half the words, and come home to show me his paper with no apparent feelings of remorse or failure. I did what I thought every good father should do. I spanked him, but it did no good. Then I prayed with him. He was not impressed with my prayers. Then I tried to buy him with the promise of expensive gifts if he would learn to spell, but his needs were all met and he wasn’t moved by my materialistic brand of motivation.

Finally, one day in a flash of insight I realized that the behavior pattern I would have identified in a moment in any other family I had not recognized in my own. Our second son was trying to tell us in a hundred ways that he did not want to be his older brother’s little brother. He did not want me to love him because he spelled correctly but because he was my son.

I was getting ready to leave for three weeks in Germany on a speaking assignment. We did not have the money, so we borrowed it from the bank and bought our 11-year-old a ticket to go with me. He shrieked
with excitement when he opened his present and saw what it was.

For the first three days of the journey, he didn’t talk much. Then suddenly he started to babble like a brook. We talked for hours about anything. One morning I woke up in a little hotel in Salsburg,
Austria, and he was sitting in a chair by the side of my bed waiting for me to open my eyes so we could talk. Each night we would enjoy our meal in the privacy of the room–while we continued to talk, talk and talk.

Finally we were on our way home, flying across the North Atlantic. It must have been 3 o’clock in the morning when everybody else on board was asleep except him and me. We were talking, well, he
was talking, in the dark. I said, “I’m concerned about this spelling business.”

Like a flash, he shot back, “Oh, Dad, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

I did not respond. That brief exchange was all the discussion we had on spelling during the three weeks.

Never, not one more time, did I drill him again on Thursday night. I disciplined myself not to talk about spelling except on Fridays when he brought his test scores home. And for 13 consecutive Fridays, he had perfect scores on all his spelling tests.

Poison in the attitudes of a perfectionist parent can inflict children with negativism and the habit of unhappiness that may dog their steps the rest of their lives. Somehow, parents like me, with tendencies toward perfectionism, need to analyze their expectations and find ways to make love work, because “the child is my child,” and not because “my child makes me look good by being a high achiever.”

The Power of Words and Attitudes

Two researchers in California got the idea that attitudes make a difference in germination of seeds. To prove their point, they planted seeds in two receptacles somewhat larger than a pie pan. They made sure
they had the same quality and quantity of dirt and fertilizer in each one and counted out 23 seeds for the soil in each of the pans. They took the two pans into a greenhouse where they set them in the sun so
that both would be subjected to the same temperature and same amount of sunshine during the germination period.

There was only one variable in this experiment. These scientists with Ph.D. degrees behaved in what seemed to be an irrational fashion. Three times a day they hovered over one pan and attacked those poor, helpless seeds with all kinds of verbal abuse, such as, “If these seeds do sprout, they won’t amount to anything” and “I doubt if they ever come through the soil, and if they do, they will soon die.”

Then, three times a day, they turned to the other pan, their personalities changed. In pleasant voices, they began to say good and helpful things about the possible germination of the seeds: “Everything
I ever put in the ground grows” and “I can hardly wait to see how beautiful these plants are going to be.”

Three weeks later, a picture of these two pans appeared in Time magazine. The pan that had been the object of all their scorn had a few small shoots coming through the ground but could never be considered a full crop. In the other pan, which had been the object of their positive reinforcement, there was a full stand of grass eight or nine inches tall and in full flower. It looked strong enough for a person to take hold and, clutching it, lift the entire pan, dirt and all.

Our oldest son, who was going into junior high, decided to do a much more sophisticated kind of test using tape recorders with messages every hour, 24 hours a day, for three weeks. At the end of this time,
my son took his experiment and the results to the Oregon state Science Fair and won first prize because he had demonstrated the power of attitudes on the germination of seeds.

If attitudes do that to seeds, what do they do to human beings? If attitudes have this power over seeds planted in pans, what do our attitudes do to the minds of our children, or our spouses, or our employees, or our boss?

But what do we do if we are like the helpless seeds who were yelled at? Are we victims but never victors? Do we have responsibility for our attitudes or is our predicament the fault of others? The case I have been making for the habit of happiness is filled with hope.

RENEWING YOUR MIND

St. Paul said, “I beseech you therefore . . . be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The only way I know to change a bad attitude is to change the way we think. Many good people have bad
attitudes. Their self-righteousness and outward displays of goodness mask hostility that seethes and burns on the inside. The strength of their inner self has been watered down and weakened by a pattern of negative responses to life.

How Do You Picture Yourself?

The first step in altering a negative mindset is to change the way we feel about ourselves. Dr. Hugh Missildine, author of Your Inner Child of the Past, says that we learn from a small group of people
consisting of no more than four or five persons including mother, father, brother or sister, a close relative, neighbor, or teacher. These important people give meaning to our lives by telling us who we
really are. The way they listen to or ignore us, or slap us or love us, or tell us to shut up or give us a worthy answer, are all small pieces of the picture puzzle being shaped, piece by piece, in our minds. By
the time we have reached our early teens, Dr. Missildine says we have learned very well that we are beautiful or ugly, smart or dumb, fast or slow. Nothing is sadder than adults trying to cope with the challenges of home and family while depending on a set of emotions and thought patterns that crystallized during their early teens. The level of our maturity at 15 years of age will not be adequate at 30 or 40. Negativism is not a synonym for immaturity, but negative people have immature ways.

The Divine Transformation

God can help us transform our minds, especially our negative thought patterns.

After I preached in a large Western church on a Sunday morning, the pastor took me aside and began telling me his story.

“I was actually given away by my father. I remember the day we went down a dusty country road in an old Ford pick-up truck. When my father saw a farmer in the field, he honked the horn and yelled, ‘How
would you like to have a boy?’ The farmer replied, ‘Yeah, I’d like to have a boy if he can work.’

“I remember the feeling I had when my father put his hands underneath my armpits and lifted me over the fence without saying a word. I screamed and stomped out of sheer fright. When I turned around
to look, my father was already on his way back toward the truck, never looking back at me for a wave or a goodbye. I will never forget him disappearing down the road in a cloud of dust.

“I was small and not able to work as hard as the farmer wanted so he put me in an orphanage. Things went from bad to worse. I was the smallest of the boys and the others picked on me. I responded with
anger, acting out my hostility with verbal and physical abuse. The couple in charge considered me a troublemaker. The more I disrupted things, the harder they were on me.

“One day somebody said a Sunday school bus was coming the next Sunday. Since I would do anything to get away from that place, I was waiting the next Sunday with my face scrubbed.

“At the church I found people who were kind, who spoke directly to you and waited for an answer as though what you said mattered to them. I did not know people like this existed. After the service, a
family took me home with them for a meal like I had never seen before. Children played in the house and outside on the lawn. The father and mother spoke kindly to each other and to the children.

“I continued to attend church and when I was about to enter my last year in high school, the people at church began to talk to me about going to college. I told them this was impossible, but they said they would provide the money and help find the best college for me.”

The young man enrolled in college and later felt a call into the ministry. He married and was given a pastoral assignment.

“But,” he said, “every time a board member or a woman with a strong voice said something the least bit harsh toward me, I had recurring visions of the monitors at the orphanage. I struck back hard and fast, just as I did in the sleeping quarters of the orphanage. I was alienating the people I was trying to serve.

“Finally I went to the altar of our church on a weekday when no one else was in the building. Defeated, demoralized and facing sure defeat as a pastor, I confessed my predicament to God. I told Him I was
not willing to go on living like this any longer. I wanted to put all that had ever happened behind me and start a new life with attitudes that would help me.

“My life changed. From then on, I worked on the assumption that God would help me live in the present and not be defeated by the past. From that day on, my ministry took on a new level of effectiveness.”

It is not possible to change our early childhood environment or biological factors such as height. But there is one thing that can be changed. Our minds can be transformed. God can help us change the way
we think about the past and about ourselves.

HOW ATTITUDES OR BREAK YOUR LIFE

It is no accident that some people live radiant, productive lives, while others, who go to the same church, hear the same sermons, and sing out of the same hymnal, live lives that are defeated and anxiety-ridden.

It is no accident that some people seem to take all life hands them in stride, rising above disappointments, while others, who have had the same educational advantages and had comparable incomes, are dominated by feelings of anger, jealousy and boredom.

It is no accident that some people may be transferred to any community, assigned any job, and face tremendous obstacles when suddenly factors beyond their control begin working to their advantage.
Their own attitudes plus the attitudes of the people with whom they work accrue in their favor. At the same time, other people go through life plagued by dead-end job assignments and bad decisions that bring their world tumbling in about them.

At least four sinful tendencies can break our lives and leave all our hopes in shambles:

resentment
self-pity
unconfessed sin
a negative attitude..

These tendencies can be transformed into attitudes to help fulfill God’s purposes in our lives:

forgiveness
self-worth
cleansing confession
an affirming attitude toward life.

Resentment: Cancer of the Spirit

Resentment is the basic problem that keeps most of us torn up inside. Jealousy without resentment may even foster a positive motivation when my nondestructive jealousy of your success makes me work harder. Anger without resentment is mostly an emotional release. But resentment that feeds on the mind and claws at the emotions is doing the work of a cancer in the spirit.

Larry Douglas was tall, good-looking and financially comfortable, owning his own successful wholesale business. His house was beautiful. His wife was beautiful. Their two lovely daughters, 12 and 15 years of
age, attended private schools. But everything blew apart when his wife decided to divorce him. She took the girls and moved from Oregon to California, leaving him bitter and resentful.

Larry and I sat in his car as he poured out all the things his ex-wife had done to him. He told me about ha adulteries with only the slightest reference that he might have had some of his own. He told me
how she had blatantly talked about their problems to “everybody” in the church, making him out to be at fault.

Finally I asked him: “Larry, do you realize what she is doing to you?”

Abruptly, Larry wheeled sideways in the bucket seat of his sports car and glared at me through eyes of fret Suddenly I was an adversary. With exasperation he said, “Dr. Parrott, you don’t know how justified I
am to feel this way.” Then looking through the windshield, he resumed his hostile expose of her sins as though he were seeing invisible pictures of his wife’s misdeeds.

Finally, I stopped him. “Let’s assume for a moment,” I said, “that everything you have told me about your wife is fully true. The fact remains that she is actually killing you. You did not eat your lunch. Before the afternoon is over you will need an antacid. You will drive this car aggressively to your plant, making you more susceptible to an accident. Before the day is done you are going to unload your frustrations on some of your employees or customers. And this evening you are going to drag yourself home, exhausted, to sit in an empty house and brood over all the things this woman has done to you.”

It really does not matter how airtight our arguments are for justifying our most cherished resentments. The psychological and physical price for cultivating anger and keeping it alive is more than any of us can afford. And justified or not, the mental and physical results are the same. Unfortunately, the mind and the body do not know the difference between justified and unjustified resentment.

I have observed several steps that seem to be part of every person’s experience as well as my own, as we face our unresolved problems of resentment.

1) Trace it back Since everyone wants to be a winner, it is easy to build resentment toward those who are successful. Some people make us feel inadequate. They may not recognize our achievements as they
should, or they fail, say, or do things that enhance our self-image. Or, resentment may have been kindled when another person was simply doing his job as he saw it, but the results came down hard against us,
and we reacted.

2) Talk it out. Find a non judgmental person with whom you can talk out the problem. I believe that the person God intended us to have as our confessor is one’s husband or wife. It is great to have a  relationship with our spouse that can stand the outpouring of pent-up emotion without fear of a judgmental retaliation or disinterest.

3) Turn it over. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King did not have their greatest struggles with the oppressive systems they fought, but with their own resentment. Before they were ready to do the positive work of healing among their people, they had to be healed themselves. They were not ready to lead their people until first they had committed all of the inequities, brutalities, and the abuse of the sheer, raw power of their enemies into the hands of God.

Self-pity: A Luxury You Can’t Afford

Self-pity has nothing to do with circumstances. It is a frame of mind. I have known men and women who were highly successful in their careers who felt sorry for themselves because they had failed to make
the last promotion, or felt that promotions were coming too slowly.

If I’ve ever known someone who had a right to be filled with self-pity, Mrs. McDonald did. In one 6 month period, she had enough happen to her to devastate most people. Her husband died, which was bad enough in itself, but he also left her penniless with a backlog of monthly bills. Three months later, she was in an automobile accident that mutilated her legs and caused one of them to be amputated. Three months later, the other one was cut off.

She got a carpenter to build a small elevator to carry her up an incline from the sidewalk to her back door. The carpenter cut down the height of the kitchen cabinets and extended her counters so she could
use them in her wheelchair.

Next, she decided the only realistic thing she could do for a living was to start a telephone sales business, which she did. I have known people who have called Mrs. McDonald to buy things they might have bought elsewhere just to absorb a little of her sunshine.

I’ve tried to analyze what makes some people rise above self-pity while others are victims of it. In Psalm 73, King David of the Old Testament tells how he felt sorry for himself as he envied others’ prosperity: “they are not in trouble,” “they have more than a heart could wish” (vv. 5,7; KJV).

David used the therapy of stillness as a first step in overcoming self-pity. “When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end”
(vv. 16-17). God’s sanctuary is anywhere you and I stop long enough to meet him. We can’t hear what God says until we listen, and we cannot listen until we become still enough to hear him. With my Bible open before me, it is amazing what God has to say to me. I don’t think of myself as mystical. My religion is far too practical for that. But I would not exchange the moments of quietness each day for any two
consecutive meals.

When David thought about the reasons for his self-pity, he realized that the collage of life consists of more than a few candid shots of triumphant moments. David’s statement, “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places” (v. 18), implies the long look at life. The embezzler is rich for the moment and the manipulations of the conniver may be successful at the time. But in life, it is the long pull, which matters.

David saw the error of his self-pity: “Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins. So foolish was I . . .” (vv. 21-22). The manufacturer of self-pitying thoughts consumes his own product and
suffers all the related pains. Why do we punish ourselves with self-pity when the pain is not necessary?

Unconfessed Sin: Fueling a Burning Guilt

The superintendent of nurses in a large hospital phoned me one day about a young lady she said would be sent home from nursing school unless something could be done to effect a radical change in her. The
student had unprovoked crying spells. She wanted to change roommates for the second time in one term. Her anger was on a hair trigger. I agreed to talk to the young lady.

When the nursing student arrived, she sat looking at me glumly with distrust. Finally, I stopped her fumbling efforts to talk and suggested she leave and come again if she wished on another day.

Two days later the young lady showed up unannounced, sat in the same chair, and began talking. After 50 minutes of skirting the issues, she looked at me sharply and wanted to know if the gadgets on my desk were turned on. When I said “No,” she wanted to know if I would tell the superintendent of nurses anything she would tell me. Again I said, “No.” And with this assurance she launched into a story of confession. When she finally finished a long, dirty, involved story of sexual sins, she breathed in a great amount of air, exhaled it, and slumped deep into her chair as if a burden had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders.

In the hushed silence that followed, I asked if she had told this story to anyone else. She said, “No, and it has been hell on the inside for three years.”

I pointed out the difference between phony, personally imposed guilt and genuine, lawful guilt that comes as God’s laws are contradicted. I explained the finished work of our Lord on the cross. When we finished talking and praying together, she showed great signs of relief.

Some weeks later I got a phone call. The superintendent on the other end said, “I have never seen such change in a student. She is over her crying spells. She has made peace with her roommate. She got a
good grade on her latest examination. I believe we can keep her, and she will graduate to become a good nurse.” I never told her of the student’s problem of unconfessed sin.

I am a great believer in confession, both theologically and psychologically. When David sought relief from the burning guilt heaped on him from his torrid affair with Bathsheba, his way back was through
confession (see Psalm 51).

Negative or Positive Outlook: You Choose

The positive person allows people to be human and does not judge everyone by a perfectionistic standard. The negative person makes himself the judge and jury on the inevitable shortcomings in every
situation. His conversation becomes a negative commentary on life.

In Oregon it rains a lot. For some people, the condition is unforgivable. Some who have been transferred to Portland have finally quit their jobs and moved away because they could not accept the wet winter weather. Two people wrote letters from Portland, Oregon, to relatives back east on the same day. One wrote, “It is a beautiful day in Oregon. The gorgeous sunshine is gleaming on snow-capped Mt. Hood.”
The other wrote, “It is the first day the sun has shone in a month.” They both told the truth. The negative person discounted the day of sunshine while the positive person rejoiced in its splendor.

Many negative people have already struck out before they start the day. Their daily attitude is like a monster with many tentacles wrapped around the possibilities of their minds, holding them back from
success, increasing their frustration, and making them failures. Positive people expect good things to happen. With them, the habit of happiness is standard equipment.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1991, PAGES 3-17. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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