If I asked you how your day has been, how would you answer? “Wonderful!” “Fine.” “Okay.” “Ugh, you wouldn’t believe the rotten day I’ve had…” We’ve learned in this study that developing and growing in a joyful life depends upon focusing our attention on others (rather than ourselves), but there’s more to it: our experience also depends upon how our attention is focused. Do we look at others—and, really, upon life itself—with joy and gratitude, or do we look with critical discontent at all the shortcomings—both real and perceived—in everything and everyone around us? The simple fact, as Winston Churchill says, is that ‘attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.”
The Thankful Life
There’s a popular saying about developing an “attitude of gratitude” which, while the phrase itself has become a cliché, nonetheless makes an important point: we need to recognize our blessings, and respond by living thankfully and joyously. Countless studies have shown that optimistic, thankful people live healthier and happier lives. But how can we develop such an attitude and reap such benefits?
An excellent practice for growing in a transforming, joyful life is to begin and end each day by thanking God for all the blessings he gives to us. It is a wondrous blessing to rise and face a day in which we can worship God and exult in everything He does for us; you can celebrate this by saying as you awake, “This is the day the Lord made; let us greatly rejoice and be glad therein” (Psalm 117:24)! Morning is a great time to remember everything God does because, as the Holy Prophet Jeremiah says, God’s “compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is (His) faithfulness” (Lamentations 23:22-23, NKJV). This is why the Holy Prophet and King David proclaims there is “great joy in the morning” (Psalm 29:6).
Nighttime, when for most of us the day is winding down and we can take a moment to rest and reflect upon the day, is another time in which to praise God and grow in joy. St. John the Solitary describes how we can think about God’s blessings before going to sleep:
When evening comes, collect your thoughts and ponder over the entire course of the day: observe God’s providential care for you; consider the grace He has wrought in you throughout the whole span of the day; consider the rising of the moon, the joy of daylight, all the hours and moments, the divisions of time, the sight of different colors, the beautiful adornment of creation, the course of the sun, the growth of your own stature, how your own person has been protected, consider the blowing of the winds, the ripe and varied fruits, how the elements minister to your comfort, how you have been preserved from accidents, and all the other activities of grace. When you have pondered on all this, wonder of God’s love toward you will well up within you, and gratitude for His acts of grace will bubble up inside you.
Notice what St. John has done—he hasn’t merely given God a token “thanks for everything,” but instead focuses on specific things in his life for which he can rejoice. How can you do this, particularly if you tend to be a “the glass is half-empty” person, focusing more on what bothers you than on your blessings? I suggest looking at “the big picture,” and then zooming in on smaller and smaller details. For example, you can start by thanking God for the fact that you are alive, able to have a relationship with Him and to grow deeper in communion with Him. You could then zoom in and focus on the blessings of having a home, food to eat and clothes to wear, and family and friends. You can then zoom in further and focus on specific things your friends or family said today that made you smile, or a meal you particularly enjoyed, or a moment when you simply enjoyed basking in the sunshine or walking through the snow. You could then zoom in even further and think about what you are enjoying right now: the calm of a quiet room, feeling physically and emotionally relaxed, hearing a child laugh or the sound of rain on the roof…joy comes naturally from adjusting our focus so that we concentrate on the countless good things we experience each day.
Joy During Problems
Of course, life isn’t a non-stop torrent of joy: most days present us with minor irritations, and there are tragedies that leave us writhing in physical or emotional agony. How can we experience joy during the difficult times?
One way to prevent life’s minor annoyances from diminishing your joy is to prepare yourself for them in advance. Lorenzo Scupoli gives this advice: “Make it your rule every morning, while you still sit at home, to review in your mind all the occasions you may meet with in the course of the day, both favorable and unfavorable, and visualize the passionate impulses, lusts and irritations they may provoke; then prepare in yourself beforehand how to stifle them at the very inception, without allowing them to develop…This review of what may happen should be practiced especially when you have to go out and visit places where you are bound to meet people, who can either attract or irritate you.”
But what about the trials of life that go far beyond minor annoyances? As St. Basil the Great asks, “Am I to give thanks when I am beaten with humiliating blows by one who hates me? When I am stiff from the cold, perishing from hunger, tied to a tree, suddenly bereft of my children, or deprived even of my very life?” He then answers,
A soul which has once and for all been held fast by the desire for its Creator and is accustomed to delighting in the beauties of the heavenly realm will not alter its great joy and cheerfulness under the influence of carnal feelings, which are varying and unstable; but things which distress other people it will regard as increasing its own gladness…You will easily achieve this if you have dwelling within you the commandment which advises you always to rejoice, dismissing the vexations of the flesh and gathering that which gladdens the soul, transcending the sensation of present realities and extending your mind to the hope of eternal realities, the mere thought of which is sufficient to fill the soul with rejoicing and to make Angelic exultation reside in our hearts.
We can also grow in joy, even in times of great suffering, when we remember “that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). St. John Chrysostom explains, “When Paul speaks of ‘all things,’ he mentions even the things that seem painful. For if tribulation, or poverty, or imprisonment, or famines, or deaths or anything else should come upon us, God can change them into the opposite. For this is one instance of His ineffable power, that He can make painful things light to us and turn them into things which can be helpful.”
But what should we do if we find ourselves sinking into a joyless state of mind: mired in discontented, critical, angry thoughts that move our focus from the blessings we’re given to the problems we face or nice things we don’t have? St. Peter of Damascus says we need to direct our attention back to the good:
If our thought, in a moment of weakness, should succumb, we should not be afraid or despair or ascribe to our own soul what is said to us by the devil. On the contrary, we should patiently and diligently, to the limit of our strength, practice the virtues and keep the commandments, in stillness and devotion, freeing ourselves from all thoughts subject to our volition. In this way the enemy, who day and night promotes every kind of fantasy and deceit, will not find us worried about his tricks and illusions and all the thoughts within which he lurks, presenting to us as truth what are really deceits and falsehoods; and so he will lose heart and go away.
The Holy Apostle Paul tells us where we should focus our attention when he says, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8). The joy we develop depends upon the raw material we use to build it: thinking about things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely and good will enable us to grow in joy. As an elder on Mt. Athos says, “Let us build a factory of good thoughts…whatever thoughts we put in our minds, that is what we will get.”
Carry it into Daily Life
St. Ambrose of Milan says we can grow in joy by singing hymns to focus our attention on God:
Disciplined piety feeds the soul on holy thoughts. What can be more blessed than to imitate on earth the chorus of the angels; to begin the opening day with prayer, honoring the Creator with hymns and songs; and when the sun is up to turn to work, always accompanied by prayer, and to season one’s labors with singing? Cheerfulness and freedom from sorrow are the gifts which the soul received from the singing of hymns.
We can also listen to Orthodox CDs during the day, as well as to the hymns and other programs streamed on Ancient Faith Radio.
Source: Ancient Faith Radio
Jason Barker creates multimedia resources for numerous Orthodox departments and ministries, including Ancient Faith Radio. His website is www.orthodoxresource.com.