I had the tremendous blessing of interviewing joy expert Adria Wilkins this morning for the Flourish-Meant podcast. She’s an amazing, yet humble and genuine woman who exudes grace. I had hoped for months to feature her on the show. When I met her a little over a year ago at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, I liked her instantly. She has an infectious enthusiasm for her faith and message. Her friendliness warms you to the core of your heart.
But her contagious smile hasn’t grown without effort. Adria has suffered incredible hardships. Her second child, Blake, had spina bifida. The disease failed to diminish her son’s ability to infect the world with inspiration. He lived three years, leaving behind both grief and a beautiful message for thriving.
The loss of a child ranks as “one of the most painful events that an adult can experience and is linked to complicated/traumatic grief reactions” (Prigerson et al., 1999). So we don’t want to gloss over the suffering Adria and her family endured. The struggle proved intense and painful, yet she fought for the hard-won mission to cultivate a life of joy.
Circumstances and situations press against us, urging us to give in to despair. Life can often feel like a muck of darkness threatening to bury our joy. To make matters more difficult, our human default setting also trends away from happiness. We’re wired to focus on pain points instead of blessings. The stubbed pinky-toe demands our focus while we ignore the healthy nine piddies at its side. While we need to address an injury, dwelling on the the negatives we cannot treat does no favors for our health.
In a 2009 study of 100,000 women, the most cynical participants were most likely to develop heart disease. Worse yet, the pessimistic women proved more likely to die during the study (Can Negative Thinking Make You Sick, accessible on health.com).
My research offers great news, however. The plasticity of the brain means we can re-direct our thought patterns and create new mental habits. So science affirms one of my favorite aspects of humanness–our ability to change. God created us with a unique gift of choice, and neuroscience confirms the many blessings of choosing mindsets of joy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking can deliver a tremendous set of health benefits. These include the following:
- Longer life span
- Reduced risk of depression severity and symptom frequency
- Minimized levels of distress
- Increased resistance to diseases, such as the common cold
- Improved physical and emotional well-being
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
- Improved function of cardiovascular health
- More effective coping skills and stress responsiveness
In my conversation with Adria, we agreed these positive mindsets require intentional effort. Living our best life, while worth it, requires turning over the muck to cultivate joy. We might need to vent our troubles first, like Elijah. We find the story of God’s counseling session with Elijah in 1 Kings 19:7-16. This amazing and faithful prophet faced intense opposition and suffered from clinical anxiety and depression symptoms which drove him to isolation in a distant cave. The Lord asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He repeated this question, even though God knew the answer before the first time he asked.
God understood Elijah’s need to vent his despair and worry before he could move on. The Creator empathizes with us as we suffer the pressure of our emotional issues. He invites us to dig into our steaming piles of anxiety and pain and share them in prayerful “sessions” with him. But, God knows how unhealthy and miserable this momentary pit becomes if we make it our long-term dwelling place. This passage continues with the Lord’s command for Elijah to “go” and a revelation of the positives the prophet had been unable to see. God prompts us to turn our dark muck over and invest our next moves toward growth.
The tilling of smelly soil and the trek out of our emotional holes take some intentional effort. Adria noted how this battle feels palpable when circumstances press against us. Sometimes she uses a punching bag to beat back negative thoughts.
As physical beings, we often need to take tangible actions to change our thoughts and feelings. The Joy Box Journal includes a host of suggestions for shifting our lives to include more joy. Here are a few of the recommendations Adria offered during our interview:
- Random acts of kindness
- Maintain a “joy jar” to remind yourself of moments which blessed you
- Invite guests to add their own moments to your joy jar
- Choose a thankful perspective daily
- Focus on heaven’s blessings during this life
Though she didn’t mention this during our interview, she models a faith-radiant and contagious smile. I love the genuineness of her joyful expression. According to a recent article in Psychology Today, smiling offers the following benefits:
- appearing thinner to others
- elevated mood
- longer life span
- triggers more pleasure in the brain than chocolate
- marital fulfillment
- social acceptance
- appearing more competent
- enhanced confidence
- a more youthful appearance
I’d love to hear your suggestions for cultivating joy here, also! Feel free to share your feedback with us in the comments.
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