By Wes Beavis
The fundamental desire of every person could be summed up in one phrase: “More pleasure, less pain!” In fact, if advertising served as our guide, the best life would be one of “all pleasure and no pain.” Sounds heavenly, doesn’t it? Offering people “heaven on earth” is the basis of the sales industry: “Have a problem? We have a product to make that problem go away . . . and then you will be happy!” To be fair, there is some truth to that pitch; a well-designed product can solve problems that cause us pain.
A pastor called me recently with a peculiar question. Early in his ministry he discovered that exercise was essential to mental health and physical health. His favorite fitness activities were basketball and going to the gym. However, when the COVID-19 closures took place, gyms were closed and playing basketball was no longer an option. So, he took up running and discovered he liked it. However, after completing a long-distance run, he called me with a painful problem. “Wes,” he said, “I ran 18 miles today and my nipples are so chafed that they’re almost bleeding. Does this happen to you when you run?” I’ve experienced the same pain, so I had the solution. Surgical tape. I told him to stick a square inch of hospital-grade surgical tape over each sensitive area and it would quickly put the joy back into his running.
Is It (Neurologically) Possible to Be Joyful Always?
Products can solve problems, reduce pain, and make us happy for a little while. But the joy doesn’t last. There is always another problem that comes along, often bringing pain with it. That starts the cycle of trying to reduce pain and reclaim joy. Is this cycle a problem? Perhaps not.
Philosophers would argue that joy is possible only because of the presence of pain. Joy would lose its meaning if it were constant and undiminished.
Psychologists would argue that having an expectation of happiness is the source of much unhappiness. When a person believes they should always be happy, it is the recipe for emotional turmoil and dissatisfaction with life.
A big part of my work as a clinical psychologist is to help people identify unrealistic assumptions about life. Could the expectation of everlasting joy be erroneous? That’s something to ponder. Yet Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11, New American Standard Bible). Are we to believe God’s will is that we should be full of joy all of the time?
I currently drive a gasoline-powered car, but one day I would like to own an electric vehicle. But beyond that, I want solar panels on the roof of my house to collect the sun’s energy and transform it into electricity that charges a whole-house battery during the day and, in turn, recharges my electric vehicle while I am sleeping. This system would enable me to drive wherever I need to go the next day. Admittedly, the process would need to be repeated day after day.
In essence, joy is like an electrical charge. It drains down during daily activities. However, at any point in our day, we can tap the power of God’s joy to replenish our spirit. When we do tap into God’s joy, it stimulates the release of brain chemicals associated with positive emotions: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. These “feel-good” chemicals are not constant. They activate and then diminish depending on what’s going on in our lives. That’s the way God designed our system.
We are not designed for the joy to remain constant (like God’s joy). Our job is to stay within the system. In general, the system goes like this: (1) God charges up our spirit with joy; (2) we joyfully use our gifts and talents to make a difference in the world for his glory; (3) the fallen world drains our spirit of joy; (4) we reconnect with God to replenish our joy.
It is not neurologically possible to be full of joy all the time. God did not design our brains to be constantly awash with dopamine. However, people are adept at devising ways to circumnavigate God’s design. Cocaine is one example. People can short-circuit God’s design by using cocaine to induce a “feel-good” euphoria. However, this euphoria eventually wears off, leaving the person with a strong urge to consume more cocaine. To state the obvious, chemically hot-wiring the brain to constantly feel good inevitably leads to not-so-good outcomes.
Studies indicate our brain was designed for intermittent blissfulness rather than permanent blissfulness. Feel-good neurotransmitters intermittently flow and then are reabsorbed for later release. Neurologically, joy cannot permanently be in the locked-on position. Joy is not static or impervious to loss. Joy is dynamic.
We experience joy and then it drains away with the normal vicissitudes of life. Inevitably, we crave joy because we feel depleted of it. When individuals feel depleted of joy, they go in search of it. We like dopamine, serotonin, and the entire batch of delightful neurochemicals flowing from neuron to neuron making us feel good. So, when life drains us of joy, we have a natural urge to want it back. Joy is, after all, the preferable human state. We desire pleasure and avoid pain.
What’s the Secret to Enduring Joy?
Joy can come from a million different places . . . from self-serve ice cream to serving those in need . . . from a 2-pound bag of lime tortilla chips to a 20-pound dumbbell at the gym . . . from traveling to exotic places to gardening in the backyard . . . from losing weight to paying off a student loan . . . from a first kiss to a first home. A countless number of people, events, and factors—such as a spouse, a child, a grandchild, friends, graduations, promotions, achievements, and unexpected breakthroughs—can induce a joy response. While most of these “joy-producers” are good, the only unfailing source of joy is God.
It’s unfortunate that so many people spend their lives chasing joy seemingly from everywhere except God. It’s an exhausting and never-ending search because the things of this world that hold out the promise of joy gradually (or quickly) diminish in their ability to provide it. I remember when I bought my first car. Talk about a solid dose of joy! I would spend hours just sitting in the car enjoying the pride of ownership. Since then, I have owned 19 vehicles and, suffice to say, the joy that comes from purchasing a new car has diminished every time. Yet, the joy I have in the Lord is as strong as ever.
One of the Bible’s shortest verses is, “Always be joyful” (1 Thessalonians 5:16, New Living Translation). Is God commanding us to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, a veritable Energizer Bunny of cheerfulness all the time? No.
Consider these Scripture verses, all of them evidence that Jesus’ brain was not constantly awash with dopamine and serotonin: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35); “[Jesus speaking] My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38), “Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb” (John 11:38, The Message); “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts . . .” (Mark 3:5). Some mental states are mutually exclusive; for example, you cannot be “consumed with sorrow” and joyful at the same time.
The “always be joyful” command can be interpreted in the light of an Old Testament verse: “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). If you want to be strong, then keep filling up with the joy that comes from God. There are scientific studies that support the “strength-joy” connection. Research has revealed that joyful people live longer.
God’s supply of joy endures forever, while our joy is dynamic and temporal. So, it makes sense that we are commanded to keep our “joy battery” charged up. Implied in the command to “always be joyful” is the reality of individual free will. We are commanded to always be joyful because joy is optional. We can wallow in misery if we let ourselves.
Joy is a good choice from a neurological standpoint. There are mental states that inhibit parts of the brain from performing well. For example, when we are worried, anxious, stressed, or fearful, it negatively impacts the part of our brain responsible for creativity and initiative. In fact, sometimes our brain completely shuts down. But when we choose joy, the creative part of our brain is reactivated. This is the 10-step sequence: (1) We take our worries to God; (2) he quiets the noise of worry with divine reassurance; (3) joy increases; (4) our brain begins to function better; (5) creativity and problem-solving capacity increase; (6) we operate more effectively; (7) the possibility of positive outcomes is elevated; (8) fruits of the Spirit flow; (9) joy increases even more; and (10) we become stronger under the influence of God’s joy-infusion.
Why Are Some People More Joyful than Others?
Someone asked me, “Why is it that some people seem to be more joyful than others? Are some people born with a natural ability for joy?” I told them that many factors can erode a person’s capacity to experience joy, including a history of abuse, inadequate nurturing, exposure to trauma, insufficient resilience training, erroneous expectations, and many others. Unfortunately, gloom tends to attract more gloom. That’s why a divine joy infusion is so important. It frees us from the influence of our deficits. Joy breaks the stronghold of the gloom cycle. God lifts us out of the “mud and mire,” sets our “feet on a rock,” gives us “a firm place to stand,” and puts “a new song in our mouth” (Psalm 40:2-3).
The good news of the gospel is that the joy that comes from God is freely available to all, regardless of temperament and personal history. God’s joy is just one choice away. If you constantly recharge with God’s joy, he will set you on the path to experiencing abundant joy. There will be so much joy that it will flow out of you and into a world that desperately needs it.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13, emphasis mine).