In the movie, The Bucket List, two terminally ill men who share a hospital room identify a list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” Together, they stretch the limits of their worldly experiences and rekindle their hearts along the way. At one stop, looking at the Pyramids in Egypt, Carter Chambers says to his friend Edward Cole: “You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions. Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not. ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMK-BUKVs0Y
Those are two good questions. One centers on ourselves: Have we found joy in life? The other focuses on others: Have we brought joy to others?
Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, describes three different kinds of happy lives:
The pleasant life, in which you fill your life with as many pleasures as you can.
The engaged life, where you find a life in your work, parenting, or love.
The meaningful life, which “consists of knowing what your highest strengths are, and using them to belong to and in the service of something larger than you are.”
After exploring what accounts for ultimate satisfaction, Seligman says he was surprised. The pursuit of pleasure, research determined, has hardly any contribution to a lasting fulfillment. Instead, pleasure is “the whipped cream and the cherry” that adds a certain sweetness to satisfactory lives founded by the simultaneous pursuit of meaning and engagement.
It’s a big feat to tackle great concepts like meaning and engagement (pleasure is much more doable), joyful people seem to ride both of those pursuits like a train rides two rails.
From Seligman’s observations and the ancient Egyptians questions, it seems that joy is both personal centered (“Have you found joy in your life?” “Knowing what your highest strengths are and using them.”) and others focused (“Has your life brought joy to others?” “To belong to and in the service of something larger than you are.”)
Let’s unpack those.
Joy has an inherently personal quality and nature about it. It’s an inside attribute and characteristics that flows outward to others. Real joy begins with the person, irrespective of moods, circumstances, or outcomes. We’ve all been around those people who seem to light up the room with their very presence. And when we dig down deep, we discover that they have not lived a charmed life. Instead, they have encountered pain, hardship, and disappointment but somehow seem to emerge from it healthier, stronger, and happier. They have found joy in their lives.
As I have observed joyful people, it seems that they have some of these personal traits and characteristics that lead to joy.
- Every moment of every day just they are present. They live in the moment. The present is at war with the past and the future. And living in the past or living in the future will zap the joy of today. Joyful people have let go of the past and they aren’t be overly consumed and controlled by the future.
- Each day they are proactive. The act today without procrastination. Procrastination can also zap joy our of today. Joyful people do what makes them happy. They take responsibility for their own life. They live by the mantra: “Dream big, start small, get going.”
- Joyful people have a positive, can-do attitude. They see the good in everything they do. They focus on the good. They know there will be disappointment and circumstances beyond their control, but they chose to live above it. They don’t allow life’s pollen and pollutants to take away their joy.
- Daily joyful people find things for which to be grateful. They are thankful for where they are and what they have. Joyful people count their blessings. They enjoy their blessings. They have been favored and are thankful for what has come their way.
- Joyful people seem to always be ready. They are prepared and often do things that seem like the spur of the moment. But in many cases, they have been preparing for that moment for a lifetime. They live in a state of readiness. They never know what’s around the corner, but they are ready for whatever comes their way. Therefore, they take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually.
But joy is more than a personal thing. It also has an outward component that brings joy to others. Joyful people are committed to something larger than themselves. It may be a cause or a purpose or a calling. They have devoted themselves to impact their world, bring about change, and make a difference. They have brought joy to others.
Here a few observations I’ve made of joyful people as it relates to others.
- They are selfless. The apostle Paul was a joyful person despite hardship and pain suffered along his way. He wrote a letter to the Church at Philippi that is commonly referred to as the Epistle of Joy because he used the word joy repeatedly. In the letter he said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4 ESV). That directive is the sentiment of joyful people. They have learned to put others first. They put others before themselves.
- We have saying: “Go big or go home.” Joyful people go big. They know that the best use of their time is to invest in that which is bigger than themselves. A wise man once said, “Make no small plans for they have no capacity to stir men’s souls.” And I might add, “give them joy.” Joyful people live for something bigger than they are which minimizes problems and maximizes actions. Problems will quench joy. But joyful people have a greater cause that reduces the size of their problems. Joy comes because they have learned to enjoy life despite problems. Their cause does not erase the problems; it simply minimizes the problems.
- They live adventuresome. Joyful people take risks that most consider on the edge or out there. People often question the joyful person’s risk-taking ventures, but joyful people know that life is an adventure, or it is nothing at all. So, they go all the way. They are all in. They leave nothing on the field. They put their life on the line. They know no continuing joy comes without risk.
The two overarching traits, personal centered and other’s focused, are like the rails of a train, running parallel with each other. Both are needed in the pursuit of joy. I would like to add a third characteristic that provides the fuel that drives the life of joy down the tracks. I call it the divine dimension of a joyful life.
A joyful life is a God-infused life because God is the source of joy. God is the author of joy. And the joy we experience comes as consequence of knowing him and being in relationship with him. God provides the confidence that operates irrespective of our moods and our circumstances. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel. That certainty comes by knowing that God is at work and in control. Joe Aldrich stated, “Joy is an attitude, a disposition, a deep, settled confidence that a loving heavenly Father is in control of the details of my life.”
Real joy, therefore, comes from a deeper source. It comes from the soul. “True joy,” wrote John Donne, “is the earnest which we have of heaven, it is the treasure of the soul, and therefore should be laid in a safe place, and nothing in this world is safe to place it in.” Joyful people have a direct connection with God who nourishes their soul and provides the fuel to purse joy personally and with others.Studies point to a link between religious and spiritual practice and joy.
In England, to signify which castle the King or Queen is residing in at the time, a certain flag will be flown over the castle or home. Taking that image, a British educator wrote, “Joy is the flag which is flown from the castle of the heart when the King is in residence there.” True joy comes by submitting our lives to God, as a subject to a king, knowing that he controls the affairs of our lives. Firm confidence in God means that our lives are in his hands. Joyful people have given the worrisome, stress-filled, fearful details of their lives into God’s keeping.
That action does not come easily for we want control. But joyful people know that real joy is a choice. To quote Martin Seligman again, he theorizes that 60% of happiness is determined by our genetics and environment, the remaining 40% is up to us. Joy, therefore, is not something that happens to us but rather something we deliberately and consciously choose.
G. W. Target wrote a short story in 1973 called “The Window”about two men confined to a hospital room due to their illnesses. One man always had to lie on his back; the other had to sit up for one hour every day because of the accumulation of fluid in his lungs. His bed was next to the only window in the room.
Each day for one hour, he would describe to the man in the hospital bed what he saw out the window. The man in bed began to live for that hour; his roommate spoke of the beautiful lake down below, describing the fishermen and the results of their efforts. Another day he described the skyline of the city on the horizon and the busy lives of the people living there. Mountains in the distance, capped with snow were reported on other days. And so the months and seasons passed with these two men.
Eventually, the man confined on his back began to resent the reports from the window. He was ashamed to admit it to himself, but it didn’t seem fair that his roommate had a window by his bed. In time, this resentment turned to anger, and then bitterness. One night he was awakened by the coughing of the man next to him, desperately needing to clear his lungs. He looked over and saw him stretching to reach the call button for the nurse. It would have been easy to push his own call button, but he didn’t. He chose to offer no help, and in a few moments the coughing ended. It was replaced with labored wheezing, and finally . . . silence.
A few hours later the nurse discovered that the patient by the window had died during the night. His body was removed from the room and the other man said quietly, “Since I am now alone in this room, may I have my bed moved where I can look out the window?”
The nurse agreed, and after the bed had been moved and he was alone in the room again, he summoned all his strength to pull himself up on his elbows. At last he would see all that awaited him outside his window.
It was then that he made the discovery—outside the window there was nothing except a brick wall.
Joy comes when we determine to choose it despite our circumstances. Let’s face it, life does not always go our way. Everything does not always work out as we planned it. What do we do in those moments of difficulty, hardship, and pain? We choose joy. Joy is always a matter of choice.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” We choose it by investing in ourselves, our causes, and our souls. Let’s not wait until we are about to kick the bucket before we choose joy.
Near the end of the movie, The Bucket List, Carter and Edward have returned from their trip, checking off many of the items on their list. Carter’s cancer has returned. He wrote a letter to Edward. It read: “Dear Edward, There’s no way I can repay you for all you’ve done for me, so rather than try, I’m just going to ask you to do something else for me—find the joy in your life. You once said you’re not everyone. Well, that’s true—you’re certainly not everyone, but everyone is everyone. My pastor always says our lives are streams flowing into the same river towards whatever heaven lies in the mist beyond the falls. Find the joy in your life, Edward. My dear friend, close your eyes and let the waters take you home.”
Carter dies and Edward speaks at the funeral. He began, “I don’t know what most people say at these occasions because I have tried to avoid them. The simplest thing is that I love him, and I miss him. Carter and I saw the world together. Which is amazing when you consider that only three months ago, we were complete strangers. I hope this doesn’t sound selfish of me, but the last months of his life were the best months of mine. He saved my life, and he knew it before I did. I’m deeply proud that this man thought it worth his while to know me. In the end, I think it is safe to say that we brought some joy to one another’s lives. So, one day when I go to some final resting place, if I happen to wake up to a certain wall with a gate, I hope that Carter is there to vouch for me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZIXzxwKVyw
Heed Carter’s request: Find the joy in your life.