Living Well

In this presentation, we look at another topic in the issue of engaging life in a way that makes us happy.

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We’ve been working on a series called Being Happy. So far we’ve seen that happiness is not a goal, but an end result of other behaviors or strategies. For example, focusing on extrinsic goals, like looking good or making money, doesn’t lead to long-term happiness. We’ve seen that out of the Bible and social science so far. So, to discuss how to be happy, we have to look at the behaviors and the strategies that produce happiness as a byproduct. One of the scientists we referred to is Dr. Martin Seligman who tells us that there are three elements to happiness – pleasure, engagement and meaning. Of the three, he tells us that engagement and meaning are the most important, pleasure the least. We started with engagement. And that’s the second of the series. Then we expanded on engagement to talk about relationships in the third presentation of this series. And now we’re going to add another topic to the issue of engaging life in a way that makes us happy. We’re going to call this one Living Well. So let’s get to it.

All the addicts I have met are unhappy people. Why is that? Well, because instead of engaging life, they have run away from it. Most addiction is an attempt to medicate away feelings instead of dealing with them.

I have a friend who went through the same masters’ program I went through. He was blind. Toward the end of the program, he needed to do a practicum, so he selected an addiction clinic. He hated it there. So, for his next practicum, he worked at a facility that worked with disabled people. I asked him if he chose that one because he was blind. And he asked, “You mean, because I’m disabled? I’m not disabled. I’m just blind.” While I was getting to know him better during our masters’ training, I saw that he was really not disabled in his mind. I went over to his house one day and he was mowing his lawn! I asked him how he did that and he said, “Well, I know it’s so many steps it is to the edge.” Some weeks later his lawn mower died and, to my amazement, he rebuilt it. He has voice-controlled software on his computer. He could send emails and dictate papers and text. He would watch his infant son while his wife went to work.

One day he talked about the two practicums he did. He said he hated the addiction clinic because the addicts always made excuses for their bad behavior and blamed others or circumstances. By stark contrast, he said the disabled people he met at the second practicum blamed no one, but worked hard to overcome the limitations life had dealt them. He said the disabled people were far happier than the addicts. I’ll never forget his synopsis. It perfectly supported what we’re told in the Bible and what social science is now teaching us. He said the disabled, who really had something to complain about, didn’t complain. They just engaged life as it was, while the addicts ran away from the challenges.

So let’s talk more about engaging life. That’s a way to be happy. Let’s talk about what it means to live well. The first area I’d like to cover is the area of productive effort. We’re talking mainly about work here, but any kind of effort could be included. I thought about calling it meaningful work, but that’s a tough one, because work can be meaningful for various reasons. Some people have hard or boring jobs, but are happy with them because the job produces income, which allows them to live. The research shows we don’t need a lot of money to be happy – just enough to meet basic expenses. Once that’s covered, more money doesn’t add much, unless we use it to help other people. So that would be an example of someone who’s happy with a tedious job.

Rather than just talking about work, let’s talk productive area in any area of life. The research shows that anything we go after with a lot of effort makes us happier. And so does the Bible. Let’s look in Ecclesiastes 9:10 – it says:

Ecclesiastes 9:10 – Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in sheol – which means the grave – to which you’re going.

So the Bible says this life is the only chance we will have to learn to work hard and apply ourselves. As an aside, notice it also says that once we die, there’s no thought in the grave. Quite a difference from the mainstream idea of going to heaven, isn’t it? Does that mean there’s no life after death? Well, it could sound like that, except for one other biblical concept – not going immediately to heaven or hell, but a resurrection at some time after we have died. We’ll talk more about that later. Whatever we do, do it with everything we have, and we’ll be happier.

I went to Lowe’s yesterday – to the help desk where I encountered a young woman who could barely move. It was though it was January and she was moving through blackstrap molasses instead of the 72-degree air. It was so hard for her to accept my return and generate a receipt. And she acted like she was doing me a huge favor, and that I was completely unappreciative of her help. I’m sure you’ve met her, too. She was probably somewhat depressed, but it’s hard to tell if the depression comes from difficult and depressing event, or if she’s depressed herself by her attitude about her work.

By contrast, I went to the back of the store to get some tiles cut and to see if they had any that would match. I was installing a new wash basin in my tile countertop, and when I took the old one out, I accidentally broke some of the tiles. So a young man there showed me some tiles that didn’t quite match up – they were $1.65 each – my stomach was sinking – but then he remembered that someone had returned a box of special order tiles. And when we looked at them, they were an exact match. How did that happen? And he sold me the entire box at 16 cents per tile. So now I have extra tiles, in case I break more. He also told me the store did not do angled cuts. But he used to be a tile guy, so he could do it for me, which he did with great enthusiasm, efficiency and courtesy. I thanked him profusely, told him he saved my life and he was the man! He grinned from ear to ear, and, obviously, was enjoying the compliment which came as the result of his productive effort. He felt good about it. Productive effort is satisfying. Then I went home and glued the cut tiles around my counter where I was replacing the hand basins. When I first broke those tiles, I thought, “Oh no! I might have to replace the entire counter now.” But now disaster was averted and the project was going forward. Not only did I feel relief, but as the first basin was set in place, I could see how it was going to look and I felt a sense of satisfaction. Challenge overcome; project going forward.

Let’s look at another aspect of productive effort. In Proverbs 27:23, it says:

Proverbs 27:23 – Know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds. Modern language for “Stay on top of things. Don’t let things get away from you. Attend to the details.” That attention has to do with being organized.

I’m more of a big picture kind of guy. I’m not a naturally organized person, but I find myself in a situation where I have to do a lot of complex, tedious things. And I have way more to do than I could ever do every day. For example, to produce one of these LifeResource presentations, there are eighty-seven things I have to do before it can be produced. How do I know that? Well, toward the end of this year, we will have produced 260 of them. And it’s the same set of steps every time. At first I was forgetting details, missing deadlines, etc. So I counted up all the steps and put them in the order that they should be done, and I said, “No wonder I can’t remember all of this.” So I bought some high-powered organizational software, learned how to use it, and set things up so that I don’t have to remember all those details. They just appear on my calendar when I’m ready to do them. The freedom that affords, and the satisfaction knowing that, most of the time, things will happen on time is extremely satisfying to me. I’m happy about the fact that I know the state “of my flocks and my herds,” so to speak. It’s a very satisfying feeling to have things, you know, going along smoothly.

To consider yet another aspect of the productive effort, let’s understand this. Attention to detail tends to kill creative process. If I had to think about every step for producing all these presentations, I would never have the creativity to come up with the topics and then present them in a way that is understandable to folks.

To deal with that, for those who want to be happier, there’s a man named David Allen, who came up with a new way of thinking about all the tasks we have. He says that, because of computer technology, we all have way more to do than ever before, and he uses email as an example. In the workplace, much work is done by interdepartmental email. One executive said that he spent most of every day answering interdepartmental email. That was how people accessed him to learn what to do next. So things come at us at a furious pace. How do you deal with all of it? Well, he points out that the human brain can dependably remember three to five things before it starts dropping stuff. So once we have a system to capture all the minutia, then it becomes easier to focus on the creative things and the important things we need to do – playing with my four-month-old grandson. I knew he was coming, so I scheduled things to have free time. And that makes us happier when we’re in control of our life, instead of our life controlling us – letting others down, not having what we need with us when it’s time to do a job, etc. I know this because, while I’m not perfect at it, I’ve made progress and have improved the quality of my life just by getting organized – by paying attention to “the flocks and herds.” Even learning how to be more productive has made me happier.

Let’s move from productive effort, then, to the next important aspect of living well and being happier. And that’s the issue of values. A friend of mine once told me he had a neighbor who started a home construction business. It was wildly successful and eventually he sold it and he made seventy-nine million dollars on that. My friend asked him what he did with all that money. And he said, “It didn’t cost much to get everyone in the family a new car, new clothes, new electronic goodies, take a long vacation and invest money for three approaching college tuitions. With the rest of the money, he gave himself a salary and hired someone else full-time to invest the rest of the money and give the profits away to charity. The seventy-nine million was still in tact and it was set up as an inheritance for his three teenage children. This man valued his family and he valued helping others and he was spending some of his money in each of these areas. So that’s one of the things they found out about money. Once you have your basics met, it doesn’t make you much happier, unless you use your money in accordance with your values. So this made him happier and more satisfied.

I was watching a Netflix movie recently, called Tiny. It was about these little houses on wheels people are building. One of the people interviewed was a woman who had worked for an investment firm. She hated her work, and had a long commute, and a big mortgage, and high car payments. And she found, as she came home from work totally done in by the day, she was drinking too much. So she and her husband sold their home, they paid off their cars, and they built one of these tiny little homes for a fraction of what it cost to build the house they lived in before. To do it, they had to get rid of a lot of stuff. So there was less stuff to fix and take care of. Life became a lot simpler and a lot less complicated. And they had a lot more time. Because their expenses were so much lower, they didn’t need much money, so instead of doing something she didn’t like to do a long way away off, she did something she always wanted to do. She became a free-lance writer and worked from home. She said instead of driving to a job she hated and drinking to get away from the bad feelings, she loved her work now and had a lot less stress. For her, less was much more.

What’s important to you? What can you do to engage your life with your values? It’s often not necessary to quit your job or move to a different house. Some people coach Little League, or they paint, or they play music, or they build things in the garage. People who spend some time being productive in a way that is in line with their values, are happier people. Do you do that? Think about all the people who don’t do anything productive. Think about how happy they are. We hear them complaining and blaming, don’t we?

I heard of an elderly widow once who had poor health. She had a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis. But she loved children. She was just too old to do anything with them anymore. So every week at church, she would give small pieces of candy to all the kids. She learned their names through the interaction, asked for pictures of them – most of them brought her a school picture. Each day she would spread the pictures out on her bed at home and pray for each child in their congregation. She was a prayer warrior. Do you remember the movie, Facing the Giants? Remember the man who would walk the halls, touching each student’s locker and praying for them? These kinds of activities make us happier people.

Now so far we’ve talked about the role of productive effort and we’ve covered a bit about living out our values. The next thing we want to discuss is a bit about conscience. Let’s look at something David said. It’s in Psalms 32:3 and 4.

Psalms 32:3-4 – When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day, for day and night Your hand was heavy on me. My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Here David is recalling the time he violated his own conscience with Bathsheba, another man’s wife, and then had that man killed – a pretty big crime. He tried to hide it. He tried to ignore it. He tried to not think about it. He avoided doing the inner work of dealing with his own heart, but he was miserable. His conscience was tormenting him because he violated the values of his conscience.

Violating our conscience is a sure way to be unhappy. The human heart needs congruity between its values and behavior in order to thrive. It’s not a part of living well.

I see people who are unhappy because of what others have done to them, and I see people who are unhappy because of what they have done to others. Paul talks about this whole business of being happy and sin and all of that. Let’s read Romans 7:21 through 25. He said:

Romans 7:21-25 – So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. “It’s just almost axiomatic,” he said. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh, I serve the law of sin.

He tells us the way to deal with the inevitable sins we commit and the bad conscience we experience is to go to Jesus Christ, who’s paid the penalty for our sins and has forgiven us. Notice, too, that he makes a distinction between himself and his flesh. He says, “I myself…” and yet, on the other side of it, there’s “my flesh.” If you look at that word for flesh, it doesn’t really mean your body. It’s a word called sarx. There’s another word for body. That’s called soma. So this word sarx is the part that causes the problem. He doesn’t really see that as fully a part of himself. That’s not really who he is. He’s the guy that wants to obey God.

Okay, so let’s look at the fourth area here that we want to talk about. And that’s facing challenges. I’ve noticed in my counseling practice – because there are two kinds of people when it comes to work – people who love their work and people who don’t. Guess which people are happiest. Now the difference has little or nothing to do with the work itself. It has to do with the way they view their work.

The young lady I mentioned earlier, who was bored with her job, and found it hard to do it…you know, looking up yet another order and processing it for a return might be a mindless task, but engaging me and helping me wouldn’t be so boring if she would just understand what her job really was. It said, “Help Desk,” so that’s what she was supposed to do, was help. Contrast her with the guy who helped me cut tiles. He might have thought his job was to sell tile, but he knew his job was help me. Cutting tiles is a pretty routine job, too, but he wasn’t thinking about it that way. He was thinking about using his time to help me and do something that I couldn’t do for myself.

So what, specifically, are we looking at here? What’s at the core of it? Well, a social psychologist, Carol Dweck, in the 80s, gave children puzzles and difficult activities to see what they would do with them. And she discovered that there were two different reactions to this challenge that was presented. Some of the kids wanted to take on the challenge and others wanted to avoid them. One group would say, “This is new! Let’s try it,” or “I’m going to get this!” She characterized this response as seeing the world as affected by effort. If you work hard you can change circumstances. On the other hand, the other kids thought of success as fixed. In other words, it had to be easy enough for them to do it, because “I’m not smart enough and that’s never going to change.”

Which way do you think about life? Well, the most exciting part of Dr. Dweck’s study was this – at least it was to me – she was able to help some of these children switch from thinking they could only accomplish so much and begin to think that they could accomplish more if they were willing to jump in and give it a try. She would tell the kids, “This may be hard at first. You might feel a little dumb or uncomfortable, but if you keep working on it, eventually, you’ll get it and you’ll feel good. And she was successful with that. We can learn our way out of that fixed mentality.

Being able to face challenges – knowing we will learn from the experience – makes us happier people. I remember the first I ever set up a ring and pinion gear set in my rock crawler. It is a greasy, dirty, tedious process. You have to engage the two gears with a special grease on the gear teeth, then look at the pattern left by the teeth in the grease, making tiny, tiny changes until the pattern in the grease looks just like the picture in the book. It’s a trial and error thing. What helped me to get through it was a comment made by a rock crawler friend. He said, “I’ve done a dozen of those and it still takes all day to do one.” So that helped me understand that it’s never easy for anybody.

So how do you face challenges? When I think about dealing with insurance companies in my private practice, each one of them, if you could test them, they would test like an individual who was sociopathic. Think about it. They don’t care about helping anybody. They know they can do whatever they want without fearing consequences, so they do. It’s kind of like the eight hundred pound gorilla. He just does whatever he wants. That kind of response day after day, week after week…I’ve found that to be wearing on me. So what can I do to deal with the ever-present, ongoing challenge? I hired a really good biller, who is not an eight hundred pound gorilla, but more like a pit bull – smaller and not as strong, but once she latches on, she does not let go. And that perseverance eventually makes a difference on the bottom line for my business. And I don’t have to do that. That’s her job and she’s good at it. She has a good attitude about it. She likes doing it. And I like seeing her do it, but I don’t want to do it myself, because I like to do counseling instead. So we both win. I get help with what I need and she makes a living, in part, off of me, and she’s good at what she does. Of course, in a perfect world, I shouldn’t have to hire her, but the world is not perfect. There will be sociopaths for a while longer.

So, if we deal with the challenges the best we can, things are going to get better for us. We just jump in there, and learn what we can, and do what we can, and find ways around, or over, or under, or through whatever comes up.

What challenges face you? Can you meet them? What is your attitude about them? Are you afraid of them? Is there something you can learn to do to help overcome them?

I had a client whose middle-school-aged daughter committed suicide. When she was finished with her therapy, she wrote me a note, and she said, “I didn’t think I could get past this, but with your help, I did. I will always love and miss my daughter, but I have my life back.” Of course, I could have done nothing if she wasn’t willing to rise to the challenge. It’s sort of a law that way. Other people can’t rise to the challenge for us. It’s something we have to do. People can root for us. They can cheer for us, but we’ve got to rise to the challenge. And her willingness to tackle what she thought was impossible made it possible. That goes all the way from something huge, like losing a child, down to trying to match tiles at Lowes. If I hadn’t been there looking, I never would have found the right color.

When we meet those challenges, we learn, we grow, and most of the time we succeed. But even if we don’t, we’re happier for the trying. We know we, at least, tried.

So to close I want to recall something that the apostle Paul said. It’s in Philippians 3:12. You know, the apostle had a really hard life as a Christian. He was beaten. He was persecuted every which way. He lost all his status from his former life. And yet, he was a go-getter. And he said:

Philippians 3:12 – Not that I have already attained this, or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but one thing I do – “one thing I do” – forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal – for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Certainly for Christians, we have every reason to get out of that fixed attitude, take on the growth attitude and go forward, because what lies ahead for us – God promises us – it’s going to be good.

Well, that’s it – how to be happy by engaging life head on. With productive effort, with all our might, with living in line with our values and our conscience, and with being willing to face challenges. Check back in two weeks to see the next one in the Being Happy series. It’s called Solutions. To see the rest of the series and much more, check out our website –