When I was a little girl, I attended Vacation Bible School at the Methodist Church in the village where I lived. It was two weeks of Bible teachings and stories, arts and crafts, playing games outdoors, singing, and snack time featuring cookies with Kool-Aid or Lemon Blennd.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are from my Bible School experiences. One of those memories is a song we used to sing, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” The lyrics I remember singing were, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” (Clap clap) “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” (clap clap). “If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” (clap clap). The verses went on; “If you’re happy and you know it stomp your feet…,” “If you’re happy and you know it, shout ‘Amen…,’” and “If you’re happy and you know it, do all three….” The song’s message is clear – when we are genuinely happy, we show it by how we behave.
Real Happiness vs. Fake Happiness
“If You’re Happy and You Know It”… How many of us actually know happiness? I mean true happiness; not how we pretend to be happy for the sake of others or how we feel when we get what we want, go on vacation, or get our own way. If I were to conduct a survey using the “If You’re Happy and You Know It” song’s verses as the questions, I wonder how people would respond. There is a possibility that people’s first reaction would be that I was nuts, but let’s put that aside and just imagine their responses.
Using the lyrics, if your happy and you know it, clap your hands, stomp your feet, shout, “Amen,” and do all three, I can speculate that some people couldn’t clap because of all the stuff they were carrying; some would stomp away in an annoyed huff; others might shout something obscene at me; some people might be too occupied on their phones to even notice me. I wonder how many people would smile, put their hands together in gratitude, jump for joy, and confidently proclaim their happiness. How would you respond?
Everybody wants to be happy, but genuine happiness seems to be elusive. I believe that’s because so many people have such a difficult time defining it. Frequently, I ask clients what they mean when they tell me they want to be happy. Very few have a clear answer. Many people think being happy equates to the same kind of euphoric feelings we have when we get something new, are excited about something that’s going to happen, fall in love, have sex, or get high. Think about it. If this were the case, how long could you sustain that level of bliss? How would you maintain it during times of distress, loss, or trauma? Trying to keep up this level of unbridled bliss would be stressful and exhausting, leaving you with more angst than happiness.
Happiness vs. Pleasure
The happiness we get from other things, other people, and activities is pleasure, which is defined as, “Desire, inclination; sensual gratification; frivolous amusement; a source of delight or joy.” This is synonymous with indulgence, recreation, and hedonism – implying emotional relief and debauchery. From this, we see that pleasure can be good and bad, having the potential to make us happy and unhappy. In addition, pleasure is something we get from external sources, so we must seek it out. Therefore, pleasure has a cost. It costs us time, money, and/or dignity. If we are not careful, we can overspend and end up broken or broke and very unhappy.
Our Desire to be Happy
Our desire for pleasure is motivated by our emotions. However, our desire to be happy is motivated by our inherent knowledge to live well. When we feel sad, mad, or lonely, we want emotional relief, so we seek pleasure to replace our negative emotions with happy ones. If we use this plan to create genuine happiness, we won’t succeed. We will simply create a cycle of pleasure-seeking based on how we feel and become pleasure dependent. The song doesn’t say, “If You’re Happy and You Feel It.” It says, “Know It.” We don’t feel to be happy, we know to be happy.
No one instructed us to be happy. We just know we are to be happy – to live well. And, it is through our knowledge we find happiness. While pleasure comes from outside sources, happiness comes from within us. Pleasure is an occurrence we seek, and happiness is a condition we create. The experience we get from pleasure gives us temporary joy and fleeting satisfaction, but this is not the composition of genuine happiness.
Definition of Happiness
Science and Scripture agree on the definition and components of true happiness. Both say it is the experience of positive emotions that include peace, joy, trust, satisfaction, contentment, and unconditional love that come from having a good attitude regardless of your circumstances. Happiness is not determined by our circumstances. We determine how peaceful, joyful, and satisfied we are no matter what our circumstances are.
People can manipulate your circumstances, but no one can control your attitude. You do that yourself. You develop your own attitude with your own mind and soul – from your knowledge, your connection with God, and your beliefs, regardless of your natural disposition.
Our DNA predisposes us to certain temperaments; some people tend to be more negative than positive. However, the power of our thinking brains and the virtue of our souls can override any adverse inclinations. God gave us thinking brains that make us smarter than our emotions so we can regulate how we feel by how we think, and He gave us rules to follow that lead us to love and satisfaction – components of happiness.
Think First, Be Happy
The key is to think first and think through situations using God’s rules as a guidance system. For example, let’s say someone says something to you and you immediately feel hurt; instead of following your natural instinct to retaliate, stop for just a moment and think. Consider the person. Is his behavior out of character? Consider the person’s situation. Is he or she under stress? Consider your situation. Are you already in a bad mood or have something going on that is making you sad?
If you follow your instincts and retaliate, you put yourself in a negative emotional state of anger and vengeance, where you’ll spend your time plotting revenge or feeling angry about the injustice. This unhappy state sets you up to seek relief, so you’ll seek pleasure. You might have a few drinks, eat a bunch of carbohydrates, or go on a shopping spree; all which can easily lead to regret, guilt, and shame. Now, you’re hit with a barrage of emotions from which you’ll have to recover.
By thinking, you stop your emotional momentum. You could think the person is having a bad day and decide to hold your peace. This will prevent you from having to recover from emotional injury. Your peace will lead to joy, satisfaction, contentment, and love. You don’t have to seek relief and you may even offer the person a kind word or prayer.
My Personal Experience
Our little song shows that happiness exists with any combination of components. We can clap or stomp or shout, clap and stomp, clap and shout, stomp and shout, or do all three. For example, we can feel joy or peace or satisfaction, feel joy and peace or joy and satisfaction, feel peace and satisfaction, or have all three. It shows we have many opportunities to create genuine happiness. The beauty of genuine happiness is that one component promotes the others.
Here’s a personal example for how I used one component to promote the others. Last year I made an emergency nine hour drive to visit my son, who was severely ill. About five hours into the trip, I hit a traffic jam — the kind where you turn off your car. Instead of getting upset, I chose to hold my peace. I repeated, “Sleeping in the boat” over and over, picturing the Bible story about the disciples in the boat with Jesus when a big storm hit. I soon felt calm and at peace. After the half hour wait traffic started moving. As I was driving, I felt more satisfied, then more joyful.
Two hours later, I hit another traffic jam. This one was a twenty minute wait. Again, I repeated, “Sleeping in the boat” and again I felt peaceful, followed by satisfaction and joy. Somehow, I arrived not much later than usual. My visit was filled with love, peace, and joy. I am happy to report my son recovered very well.
You can choose any component of happiness and set your mind to do it. Practicing it like a prayer or meditation by repeating it over and over like I did is extremely effective. Remember, it takes practice, willingness to do it, and the ability to accept how good it feels.
Like all people, you have the ability to be happy because of the mind and soul God created in you. He gave these to you, to all of us, so we can directly connect to Him and with that connection experience love, respect, honor, kindness, peace, joy, trust, satisfaction, and contentment. God created us to be happy.
To answer the question, “how do you know true happiness?” You would sing, “If you’re happy and you know it, you know God.”