How to Choose Joy

You may have heard the quote that says something to the effect of, “You’re only as happy as you make up your mind to be”. Or maybe you’ve heard it said that being happy, joyful, and content is a choice.

And, if you’re like me the first few times I received that advice, you may have wondered, “WHAT?? What does that even mean? How does that work? But you don’t know what I’m going through!”

At the end of the post, you’ll find some tips for how to choose joy in your own life. 

Two situations brought this issue up again in my life.

I was thinking about this again recently, having found a copy of the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. The book is 25+ years old. A professor at college gave it to me.

As a 19-year-old, I wasn’t impressed.

It took a few years, life experience, and maturity to realize how much wisdom God gave Mr. Covey in writing it (most of it, I’ve come to realize, is out of Proverbs). My own well-read copy had fallen behind a bookshelf, and it wasn’t until we were rearranging things after our “almost foreclosure” that I found it again. I’ve been re-reading it and remembering all over again what a huge help that book was in my life. It was in reading this book that I came to realize better that I choose my emotions and my response to situations that come my way, and that through that realization, I can then change how I respond for the better.

Looking in the Mirror

A short while ago, another thing brought this to mind. A newly married young woman I’ve known for years was going though something of an OFG (opportunity for growth)…Life is may seem difficult when you’re living at home, under your parents’ roof, but life is an all new brand of difficult when you’re in your first apartment, newly married, and trying to figure out how to blend two people into a cohesive unit, support yourselves on entry level wages, and deal with all of the new relatives you’ve also inherited through marriage.

My advice was to choose joy, even in the midst of struggles, disappointments, and strange sister-in-laws who seem to deliberately torment you.

I care about her, mostly because looking at her is like looking in the mirror and seeing myself 25 years ago….wild, emotional, chaotic, disorganized, easily offended, idealistic (and angry when life didn’t live up to the ideals that it should have).  I was controlled by circumstances. Those who irked me controlled my life because my moods were determined by things they did. I wasn’t the problem, I thought. Everyone and everything else is.

Of course, in hindsight, I’m sure that the imperative to choose joy made about as much sense to my friend now as it did to me then. 😉

So what does that even mean? How do we choose joy? How do we, practically speaking, not allow circumstances and unpleasant people control us, and have joy in the storms?

*Disclaimer: I am NOT talking about something more than normal emotions and struggles. Clinical Depression and medical issues are more complex than what I’m addressing here. *

So, How Do You Choose Joy?

1. Claim Responsibility for your Emotions

As a younger mom especially, I was always looking for an excuse for why I was upset, and I was always something of an emotional wreck. Maybe it’s hormones, or the way so and so talked to me, or not getting the Christmas present I wanted. It was the lack of sleep, recovery from childbirth, breastfeeding, morning sickness….and on and on. There was always a reason for my grouchiness.

If you look hard enough, you’ll always find a sufficient excuse to be in a foul mood. We live in a fallen world. It’s not difficult to find a reason to lash out or be grumpy.

This isn’t to say that those things (hormone changes, interpersonal issues, sleep deprivation, etc.) aren’t a big deal. They are. However, it’s bad enough to let those things negatively hit you the first time. If you let them put you, and keep you, in a foul mood for hours, days, weeks at a time, you’re letting those things control your life and your moods. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it to decide that all of these unpleasant things are not worth destroying your emotional state.

I mentioned the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, he writes,

“Look at the word responsibility — “response-ability” –the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people recognize that responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of their conditions, based on feeling.”

Response Ability — the ability to choose your response. That’s great stuff if you apply it to your life. You can’t choose how other people act. You choose how you act and how you respond.

Once you make that decision to view your mood and your emotions as your responsibility, you probably will need to develop new habits for how you respond to situations that come your way.

2. Recognize Most of My Responses are Habits I’ve Learned and Need to Unlearn

Over the years, from the time I was a small child, I learned certain responses to certain situations. Maybe at some point in my childhood, I realized I could get what I wanted or have someone change my circumstances for me by throwing a fit. Maybe I learned that this is acceptable based on the example of others. I don’t know.

It’s not easy to unlearn a response and to relearn instead the choice to choose joy in that circumstance that is unpleasant.

I had trained myself, though I couldn’t quite realize it until much later, to respond a certain way in certain situations, and towards certain people. Some of this habit training happened out here in the real world, over my lifetime, and some of it happened in my mind (more on that in the next point). I had to unlearn it.

For example, when you learn to play a musical instrument, or to do something like crocheting, or even writing calligraphy, you go through a season of learning.

At first, when I was learning italic handwriting, it felt as awkward as learning to print in Kindergarten. Later, I became more comfortable with it, and now I can do calligraphy (italic) whether I’m holding a Bic pen or my lovely fountain pen. The habit is within me. Sometimes I still get lazy and write sloppy. However, I have trained my hand so well that I can choose, whenever I want, to write in a calligraphic hand. The habit of forming the basic letters is there, whenever I choose to tap into it.

In the same way, our responses, not just verbal responses and actions, but our emotions, sometimes take time to develop, and to learn. I can still get sloppy and not choose to respond in a way that honors God, or that is unkind. However, the habit is secure and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) developed such that I can make a decision to choose joy in my circumstances.

3. Habits are Made and Broken Partly in our Minds

I don’t know about you, but in my mind I can (and often do) play over situations from the past over and over again in my mind. I would find myself getting myself into a lousy mood by choosing to dwell on how the crazy in-law treated me, how my husband didn’t do what I excepted him to do (without telling him my expectations — bad idea, but another topic for another time), or how something just didn’t go my way.

Of course, I would claim that this wasn’t something I was choosing. I would use words like “I just can’t shake it.” or “I can’t let it go” or “I can’t get this off of my mind.” Lack of responsibility for my emotions and thoughts. I was telling others and myself that I couldn’t control what was going on in my thoughts!

A friend of mine, at some point, told me bluntly, “Your thoughts, your day dreams, are yours. Tell them what the script is!”Again, it goes back to responsibility. I wasn’t too happy about that at first, of course, but at some point while sitting in my trailer making myself perfectly miserable while rehearsing some unpleasant thing, it occurred to me that even though I hated that situation the first time, here I was “enjoying” it again and again, and letting it ruin my day. D’oh! Silly me.

The old habit, the bad habit, was to rehearse these situations and to think of ways to retaliate or develop snarky, sarcastic responses.

As you might imagine, that is not a productive way to deal with stress. Though it wasn’t “real”, these rehearsals affected how I responded next time. Next time that nasty, sarcastic come back came off my tongue a little quicker. I didn’t solve the underlying problem. Instead, I made it a little bit worse in some cases.

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7)

I was saying that I wanted to choose joy, giving verbal assent to it, but I was mentally and emotionally choosing and practicing a very different response. 

On that day when I realized I was effectively choosing to experience an unpleasant situation from a few days earlier over and over again, I decided to insert a different response into my mental fantasy. I chose not to insult or swear. I chose not to get mad. I chose joy. I chose to walk away, calmly, from my crazy relative, move on, and enjoy something else.

Recently, I fell back into this bad habit of rehearsing a wrong response in my mind. Some horrible person had taken advantage of a dear friend. In my mind, for two days, I dwelt on giving her a piece of my mind. While helping my friend with a situation that this other person caused, person #2 happened to come by and decided to try to stir up trouble.

Uh oh. How maturely do you suppose I responded?

4. Recognize that Nobody’s Life is a Good as You Imagine

People usually have a public persona that they present to the world and keep their hurts and struggles hidden from plain view.

One of the struggles I have, as a blogger, is figuring out what to share and what not to share. There’s that balance of not wanting to “over-share” and yet not wanting to give off the “I have it all together” impression (In case you’re wondering, I don’t have it all together.)

This can cause issues for some people who might look at a public figure of some sort and think, “Sigh, why can’t my life be like that?”

How many women read romance novels (written by other women, I might point out), and wonder what is wrong with their husband?

Everyone has struggles. Those struggles that you have may be different from the struggles that I have, but you can be sure that we all have struggles in our lives that challenge us, and make it difficult to respond with contentment and joy. I think that sometimes it’s even harder to accept these struggles if we’re under the illusion that so-and-so over here has it better. She may be thinking the same thing of you!

5. My Emotions Don’t Change the Circumstances I’m Blaming Them On

Finally, there’s the reality that my emotions, however justified they may be, don’t affect the circumstances I’m finding myself in. What those emotions do, however, is affect things like

  • my energy level in fighting this battle, or dealing with this hardship
  • my stress levels, which can affect every area of my life, including my health
  • my attitude towards other parts of life and those I share it with
  • my snap responses to those I love, that I might be tempted to “take out” my frustrations on
  • my ability to simply deal with the situation at hand in a mature and noble way

When we were going through our foreclosure situation, this particular issue regarding choosing joy was at the forefront of my mind, and also my husband’s mind, but it was a constant struggle, with victories and failures.

Whether I was choosing to still have joy and to be happy no matter what had no bearing on our foreclosure. No one was watching us make sure we were sufficiently miserable in our circumstances. No amount of pouting, fit throwing, temper tantrums, kicking things, and so forth was going to change this situation. My long face, “justifiable” grouchiness, emotional freaking out, etc. would change nothing.

Well, it could not change the circumstance.

It would, however, change me. It would change me into an unpleasant and bitter person. It would make me short-tempered. It would make me a bundle of nerves and a worry wart. I completely wasted some days, worrying about things that hadn’t happened yet. I had panic attacks, chest pains, and I was popping antacids by the handfuls.

Here’s the thing, the bottom line.

Yes, in your situation and circumstances any one of us may say that you are justified in your anger, angst, frustration, and unpleasantness.

However, you’re not hurting anyone by you, and those you care about, by being grouchy. You may HAVE A RIGHT to be upset and respond in all of those ways, but it doesn’t mean that it IS RIGHT.

Know what I mean?

If you, instead, choose joy and choose a response that rises above the situation, the situation may remain the same but your view of it and your ability to handle it will likely improve dramatically.

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