The Science of Happiness
June 27, 2024 Blogs by: Tim Jennings, M.D.

The Bible says:

The laws of the LORD are right, and those who obey them are happy (Psalm 19:8 GNT).

Happy are those whose lives are faultless, who live according to the law of the LORD (Psalm 119:1 GNT).

God’s laws are the protocols upon which our Creator built life and health to operate, including the laws of physics, the laws of health, and the moral laws. The Bible is telling us that happiness is possible only when we live in harmony with how our Creator built life to function, in harmony with the laws of health.

Happiness is the byproduct of healthiness in all domains—physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual. When we are physically ill, we are not happy; mental or emotional illness—not happy; relationship conflict—not happy; spiritual sickness (guilt, shame, condemnation)—not happy.

Viktor Frankl—Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor—wrote:

Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it (Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 16, 17, my emphasis).

Many people are unhappy because they are unhealthy physically, psychologically, relationally, or spiritually, and sadly, they will substitute pleasure-seeking for happiness in an attempt to “feel” better, but almost all such pleasure-seeking violates the laws of health in some way (comfort eating, alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, porn, comfort in fleeting liaisons, etc.) and, thus, they only get worse.

Again, happiness is the byproduct of healthiness in all domains, and healthiness is experienced only when we are in harmony with God’s design laws for life—the protocols upon which the Creator God has built reality to operate. When we break the laws of health, the resulting sickness, disease, and suffering that occur undermines our happiness. This is why the Bible repeatedly tells us, “Happy are those who keep God’s law!” (Proverbs 29:18 GNT).

While we cannot choose to “be happy” or seek to directly obtain happiness, we can choose to be healthy, choosing to live in harmony with all aspects of God’s design laws for life. We can choose to surrender our hearts to Jesus and be reborn with new motives of love—love for God, for truth, and for others. We can choose to pursue a life of truth lived with motives to bless and love—because the truth is always the healthy choice. As we choose healthiness, the byproduct is ever-increasing happiness. And science documents the positive outcomes and connection between God’s design laws and our health and happiness.

  • In a six-week study, researchers randomized participants into a control group and two active groups. One active group was to “count your blessings” once a week on Sundays, while the other active group was to “count your blessings” three times per week—on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. This was done by making lists of things they were thankful for. The researchers found that:
    • Those who counted their blessings once a week had improvement in gratitude and happiness, while both the controls and those who counted their blessings three times per week had reductions in both gratitude and happiness.
    • Once a week counting of blessings caused actual thankfulness and appreciation, while doing so three times a week caused a desensitization in which the list-making became rote, a chore, proforma, routine, and perhaps even a burden, thereby reducing happiness (Lyubomirsky, S et al, “Pursuing happiness, the architecture of sustainable change.” Review of General Psychology. 2005;9(2)111–131).
  • In a four-week study, researchers separated participants into a control group and two active intervention groups. One active group was to do acts of kindness for others, while the other active group was to do acts of kindness for self. At the end of the study, and also at a later follow-up point, researchers found:
    • Those who did acts of kindness for others were happier than the control group, but those who did acts of kindness for self were no different from the control group (Nelson, SK et al., Emotions. 2016;16(6):850–861).
    • Acts of kindness for others activate brain pathways that calm the body’s stress cascade and result in better physical and mental health. Acts of kindness for self does not have this same benefit.
  • In another four-week study, researchers wanted to see if acts of kindness did more than just bring an emotional state of happiness. Are there physical benefits to acts of kindness? The researchers separated participants into four groups—controls, those who were to do acts of kindness for others, those who were to do acts of kindness for the world (like picking up trash along the road), and those who did acts of kindness for self. They then examined gene expression in white blood cells to measure whether there were differences in immunity. The researchers found that:
    • Compared to controls, those who performed acts of kindness for others had reduced inflammation and improved viral fighting ability. In other words, gene expression changed, epigenetically, to improve health as a result of these acts.
    • But those who did acts of kindness toward the world or for self did not differ from controls (Nelson-Coffey, SK, et al., Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2017;81:8–13).
  • Researchers have also found that in some situations, acts of kindness or happiness interventions could backfire and make a person less happy. Such as:
    • When the motivation for doing them is self-focused, such as doing acts of kindness so others will like you more or you will get advancement or praise, etc.—which is an act of selfishness instead of love and, thus, in violation of God’s design law—not surprisingly, they don’t result in improved spiritual or emotional health and, thus, no improvement in happiness. To gain the benefit the action must originate from a heart motive that intends to benefit another, i.e., from love; it is not the act itself!
    • When they become a burden, rote, work, rather than actual love.
    • When they contradict one’s heart, beliefs, or current mindset:
      • Such as a person who is in clinical depression making a thankfulness list; this can actually cause the person to feel guilt or feel like a burden to others as they think about how much others have done for them.
      • Cultural contradictions—in some Eastern cultures, the act of giving thanks to one’s parents for a good job in raising their children is viewed as an insult, i.e., as if they wouldn’t have fulfilled their duty to their family.
      • Actions that go against a person’s baseline personality, such as an introverted person being directed to give thanks in front of a group.

Happiness is possible only in harmony with God’s design laws for life, and research has thus far demonstrated that the greatest action one can take that consistently brings increased happiness is living altruistically, loving others and engaging in acts of kindness for others.

 

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Tim Jennings, M.D. Timothy R. Jennings, M.D., is a board-certified psychiatrist, master psychopharmacologist, Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Fellow of the Southern Psychiatric Association, and an international speaker. He served as president of the Southern and Tennessee Psychiatric Associations and is president and founder of Come and Reason Ministries. Dr. Jennings has authored many books, including The God-Shaped Brain, The God-Shaped Heart, and The Aging Brain.