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Restoring Joy to your Life

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Restoring Joy to Your Life
by Michael Zigarelli

The quote is attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for thirty years. At one point during his term, Justice Holmes was asked about his choice of career and whether he had considered other vocations. He responded by saying: "I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers."[1]

Not a particularly flattering image, but it underscores an important point: Joy is an elusive virtue, even for "clergymen" and other veterans of the faith. But contrary to what our experience may lead us to believe, the amount of joy in our life is not hopelessly unchangeable. It's not fixed in our genetic code or hard-wired into our personality. We can indeed cultivate and permanently elevate the joy we feel in life.

For clarity sake, though, we should begin by defining the term. From a Biblical point of view, we can define joy as having a daily spirit of rejoicing through all circumstances. It's more than inner contentment, more than gladness, more than overall satisfaction with life. Rather, joy is a spirit of celebrating life, of delighting in all that God has bestowed on us. It means to enjoy our days, to take genuine pleasure in them, notwithstanding what those days entail.

How do we get to that point? My research, and that of others, indicates that it can happen by pursuing the catalysts of joy, while avoiding a major obstacle to it.

The Catalysts of Joy
It's an enduring, confounding question. It's a question with which theologians, psychologists, philosophers, and even neuroscientists have grappled for some time. How do I increase and maintain joy? To examine that question, I collected data from over 5,000 Christians around the world through my online survey, the Christian Character Index (freely available at[2] Among other things, the survey estimates the amount of joy in a person's life through self-report survey items like "I love my life," "I like who I am," "When I wake up in the morning, I find myself eagerly looking forward to my day," "I smile a lot when I'm around other people," and "I celebrate life." The Index estimates several virtues, including joy, on a scale to 90.

What I found was striking. By comparing Christians who are consistently joyful to those who report having less joy in their lives, I identified four primary catalysts of joy—(1) a feeling of being forgiven, (2) forgiving others, (3) a feeling of life purpose, and (4) having a strong sense of gratitude—and one major joy killer, burnout. Let's look at each of these.

Feeling Forgiven Builds Our Joy
People who are confident that their sins have been wiped clean report having a lot more joy than people who are not confident about this. More specifically, when comparing people who say they "often" or "always" feel forgiven to those who say they "sometimes" or "rarely" feel forgiven, the average level of joy is more than 25 percent higher. Indeed, feeling genuine forgiveness from God can open the door to joyful living. Not accepting that forgiveness slams that door in our faces.

This conclusion will come as no surprise to many people of faith. Their personal experience bears poignant testimony to its truth. So, too, do both the Old and New Testaments. In some of the foremost places in Scripture we see that joy is the natural response to God's forgiveness and to His promise of salvation: In Psalm 51 ("restore me to the joy of your salvation," v.12), in the Beatitudes ("rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven," Matthew 5:12), and in Paul's letter to the Romans ("be joyful in hope," Romans 12:12). The assurance and hope of being justified before God is clearly a springboard to jubilation for many Christians. Moreover, this feeling of being forgiven also lays the foundation for a second catalyst for joy: Our forgiveness of other people.

Forgiving Others Builds Our Joy
Christians are clearly called to forgive others, but, as other data from my study indicates, this is the virtue where Christians struggle the most. And when we refuse to forgive, we compromise not only our Christian witness, but some of our ability to live joyfully as well.

As shown in Figure 1, those who say they are "always" forgiving of others report twice as much joy as those who say they are "never" forgiving. And in between, we see a steady, growing relationship between forgiveness and joy. It seems to be the case that lack of forgiveness embeds in us anger, bitterness, indignation, and resentment—obstacles to our inner peace and our joy. Alternatively, choosing to forgive can remove those encumbrances, paving the way for, among other things, more consistent joy.

"I Am a Forgiving Person"

Life Purpose Builds Our Joy
A third catalyst for consistent joy is what we might call "life purpose." People who say that "I feel that my life has real purpose" are much more prone to being joyful than people who do not feel this way, as shown in Figure 2. This is similar to the conclusions of many psychologists who have found through their research that "joy is a pretty certain by-product of goal attainment," and that "the sense of accomplishment or the achievement of mastery in a game, task, or intellectual pursuit can be a stimulus for joy."[3] Feeling that we are doing things that really matter in life—feeling that we are striving for worthwhile ends through our existence—and then making progress toward those ends generates a cheerfulness and elation. By contrast, a feeling of purposelessness, futility, and ineffectiveness inhibits our joy. "I Feel That My Life Has Real Purpose"

Gratitude Builds Our Joy
The last but certainly not least of the catalysts for joy is gratitude. As each one of us has experienced, there is a strong relationship between being thankful and feeling joyful. In my study, I not only found empirical evidence of this linkage, but I also found that the relationship exists because grateful people tend to think differently from the rest of us. Their minds are incessantly focused on what they have rather than what they don't have. They have disciplined their minds to eschew envy and to reject thoughts about what's missing from life—about how much better life could be "if only…" Instead, grateful people are content with what they have and, consequently, they are significantly more joyful than those who experience less gratitude.

Figure 3 depicts the connection between gratitude and joy. It's strikingly linear and steep. Further analysis revealed that there is not just a correlation here, but also a causal connection. Gratitude drives joy. So as we work toward becoming a more grateful person, joyful living often follows naturally.

Joy Increases with Gratitude

We should be careful to remember, though, that joy is not guaranteed to follow. Despite the strong causal connection, I identified nearly 1,000 people in my study who are very grateful, but still not very joyful. Digging deeper, I found that these are primarily people who are in their 20s, 30s and 40s—people who are feeling the crunch of over-extension. Learning to be married, the chaos of parenthood, working to develop their careers, and trying to balance all of these enormous responsibilities can culminate in exhaustion and lack of contentment with life. So, although gratitude often feeds joy, for many people the effects of gratitude may be more than offset by their lifestyle. This segues us nicely into a discussion of the primary obstacle to joy: Burnout.

Burnout: A Major Obstacle to Joy
Burnout is a joy killer, not only for people in mid-life, but for people of every age. It's a type of stress, a feeling of exhaustion—usually mental or emotional exhaustion—but it can have physical elements as well like headaches or lack of energy. Sound familiar? It might, because apparently more people than ever are experiencing this condition, often as a result of job or home responsibilities that are simply too demanding. Researchers have also found burnout to be a natural result of excessive interpersonal conflicts, of dealing with other people's problems all day long, and of receiving few rewards or affirmation for one's accomplishments.[4]

However, these lethargic legions are not all innocent victims. In some cases, we inflict burnout on ourselves. Sometimes we do so by creating what has been called a "performance trap" or "high-performance prison";[5] that is, we try to excel at absolutely everything we do (whether on the job, in our volunteer work, or at home as "super-mom," "super-dad," or "super-spouse") and then, if that were not enough, we continually try to top our last achievement. Our successes are seldom cause for celebration. Instead, they only serve to raise the bar for next time! We also self-inflict burnout when we allow ourselves to become addicted to over-indulgence—when we repeatedly choose to schedule too many things in our week or when we make a lifestyle out of accumulating and maintaining material possessions. As a result, we never get off the treadmill. We lament the pace of life and we experience its ill-effects, but the irony is that at any time, we have the power to at least reduce the speed of that treadmill, if not step off it entirely. We simply choose not to do so.

And what's the outcome? Burnout's consequences are many and menacing: reduced satisfaction with our job and/or our life, lower self-esteem, and what psychologists call "depersonalization"—the mental distancing from the people around us. This is not exactly the portrait of the "fruit of the Spirit" Christian. And the least of the fruit that burnt out Christians do see in themselves is consistent joy. In fact, as shown in Figure 4, there is an unambiguously negative relationship between burnout and joy in the Christians that I studied.

Burnout Steals Joy

If burnout is stealing your joy, then, what can you do about it? This is one of the hot-topic questions of our day, with both Christian and secular resources now cluttering bookstore shelves.[6] I'd recommend that you read one or more of these resources as an important step toward permanent renewal. But some of the answers may be relatively obvious. For example, it's almost always the case that one should begin by identifying the sources of one's exhaustion, and then make a priority to address them. If it's a complicated, over-indulgent lifestyle, part of the answer is to simplify your life. If it's a "do-it-all-and-do-it-great" mind-set—a high-performance prison, so to speak—then some self-examination regarding your motivations might be the first step. If it's the nature of your daily work—the overload or the conflicts that it creates—then it may be imperative that you get assistance with the workload or, as the case may be, perhaps make the move to a job that improves the quality of your life. The critical point is that if you often feel burnt out, find a way to address the issue. If you elect not to, it will severely limit your joy and your potential to grow into the person God wants you to be.

Joy is Also a Means to Godly Living, Not Just an End
God wants us to enjoy our lives. And as we've seen in this article, there are some things that raise our joy, while there are other things that raze it. But I found in my research that there may be even more at stake here than simply restoring joy to our lives. Joy is not just an end it itself. It has outcomes as well as antecedents. In fact, it can enable many other virtues God wants us to cultivate. Dallas Willard makes this point when he says that in celebration and joy, we find "great strength to do the will of our God because his goodness becomes so real in us."[7] That is, Willard argues, joy empowers our obedience.

Similarly, Richard Foster demonstrates that the power of the spiritual disciples (prayer, worship, Bible study, accountability, service to others, etc.) is dependent upon their being practiced joyfully, observing that "joy is the motor, the thing that keeps everything else going … Joy produces energy. Joy makes us strong."[8]

Indeed, God wants us to enjoy our lives. One of the reasons He sacrificed His Son is so that we could experience the overflowing joy of knowing our eternities are secure. But we Christians would do well to think about joy as more than an end in itself. Restoring joy to our lives is also a pathway to consistent Christian living—to authentic witness, to a closer relationship with God, and to blessing abundantly everyone around us.

Michael Zigarelli is the dean of the Regent University School of Business and the editor of Regent Business Review. You can reach him at
Adapted from Cultivating Christian Character: How to become the person God wants you to be—and how to help others do the same. (Xulon Press, 2002). Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] From Today in the Word, Moody Bible Institute, June 1988, p. 13.

[2] In all, there are 5,011 people in my sample, age sixteen or older, representing all fifty states and almost sixty countries. About ninety percent of all respondents are from the United States. The respondents average about thirty-five years of age and about nineteen years as believers. They come from dozens of denominations, with the largest groups being Baptist (26%) and non-denominational (25%). For validity information on the Christian Character Index, please visit

[3] See Carroll E. Izard, The Psychology of Emotions, Plenum Press: New York, 1991, pp. 133, 134.

[4] Representative of this line of research is Cynthia Cordes and Thomas Dougherty, 1993: "A review and an integration of research on job burnout," Academy of Management Review, 18:4, 621-635.

[5] See Robert McGee, The Search for Significance, (Word Publishing, 1998) and Jennifer McFarland, 2001: "High-Performance Prison," Harvard Management Update, Harvard Business School Publishing, Reprint U0106D.

[6] Among Christian resources, two of the better books are Beating Burnout by Frank Minrith and Paul Meier (Inspiration Press, 1997) and Margin by Richard Swenson (NavPress, 1995). In the secular literature, consider Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco (Broadway Books, 2001), The Truth About Burnout by Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter (Jossey-Bass, 2002), and Reclaiming the Fire by Steven Berglas (Random House, 2001).

[7] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, HarperCollins: San Francisco, 1991, p. 181.

[8] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, HarperCollins: San Francisco, 1998 Edition, p. 191.

Copyright © 2005 Regent Business Review, Issue 15. Used by permission.

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Source: Magazine Name, January 1, 2006

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