The Secret to Happiness

1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

What if I told you that I know the secret to happiness? Even better, I am willing to give you that secret…so let’s pass the collection plates one more time. No, give, I’m willing to give you that secret absolutely free. And no, I’m not passing on the knowledge of Jimmy Soul, who dropped a bit of wisdom on the world when he sang, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife. So from my personal point of view, get an ugly girl to marry you.”

Let’s be honest, after singing a song like that, who is going to marry Jimmy Soul? Are you just marrying me because you think I’m ugly?

No, I’ve got the secret! I’ve got scientific evidence where hypotheses have been tested in double-blind trials. And time after time these trials have shown that there is one thing, one quality, that almost without fail leads to a happier life. This quality isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally, but it can be cultivated and it can become a habit. The quality that I’m speaking of, this secret to happiness, is actually something quite simple. It is gratitude. It turns out that the happiest people in the world aren’t necessarily the ones with the most possessions, the prettiest or ugliest spouses, the fastest cars, or the most-powerful jobs. The happiest people in the world are those who are thankful for what they have.

What I want to do this morning is to spend some time looking at what our scriptures say about being thankful, then looking at the science behind it, and we will wrap things up with some practical application (which I admit, I don’t always make things practical!). I’ll also add that I am borrowing a lot from a sermon by Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church, which you can watch/listen to here: https://whchurch.org/sermon/the-secret/

I want to start by looking at a few verses, all from the writings of “Paul,” because Paul mentions thankfulness a lot. We often turn to Paul for teachings on other behavioral and ethical questions, so let’s assume that he has something to say about thankfulness. (I’ll ask several from the church to read these passages).

1 Corinthians 1:4: “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

1 Thessalonians 1:2-3: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

2 Thessalonians 1:3: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing…”

Colossians 3:15: “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful…”

Look at what Paul is doing. I always that God. We always thank God. We must always thank God. And in the last one, Paul connects the peace of Christ to this concept of thankfulness. Do you want to live in peace? Then start by being thankful! And notice that this is not simply a suggestion, nor is Paul blessing the people who already are thankful, those who naturally have a predisposition toward being thankful. Bless those people who just always remember to say “Please” and “Thank you!” No, this is in the imperative. This is a commandment. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t worship idols, and be thankful!

Now from our passage for today, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Come on, Paul. Really? Rejoice always? Pray continually? Give thanks in all circumstances? This makes me wonder if Paul is really living in the same world as the rest of us. In my world, people get cancer. In my world, there is war. In my world, there is famine and poverty. But remember, Paul didn’t have it all that easy, either. He must have been facing some sort of criticism for his cushy lifestyle at one point, because in 1 Corinthians, he lays out some of what he has experienced: 1 Corinthians 11:23b-27:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one (The maximum allowed by Hebrew Law was 40. See Deut. 25:3). Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

This is the guy telling us to be thankful in all circumstances.

But notice that there is a big difference between being thankful in all circumstances and being thankful for all circumstances. You don’t have to be thankful for cancer, childhood obesity, poverty, or being shipwrecked. And just an aside, if you see Paul on a boat, it might be wise to get off. He doesn’t have a good track record in matters maritime. Don’t be thankful for these things, but be thankful in these things.

Let’s bring it down a bit and get a lot less serious. This week Sonya opened the drawer where we keep all of our specialty cooking devices in our kitchen—the whisk, the potato peeler, the rubber spatula—to find the tell-tale sign of an unwanted houseguest. Little black dots sat in the bottom of the drawer, leading to an investigation and thorough cleaning of other drawers and cabinets. We have lived in our old house for nine-and-one-half years and never had a mouse. I think I was even recently bragging about that to someone. Well, no more. I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids’ lunch and kept a little extra peanut butter back to use as bate on our mouse trap.

Thursday morning I wake up to more black dots under the kitchen sink, and one dead mouse caught in my trap. And I assumed that there were more hiding somewhere.

This is not how I wanted to spend my Thursday morning. I like to sip my freshly-brewed coffee as I catch up on the day’s news. But here I was, sweeping up mouse poop. And to make matters worse, I had a dentist appointment later that day to pull a tooth. So my day wasn’t looking like it was going to be improving any time soon!

This is where I find my life to be challenging. I start thinking about my sermon on Monday, live with the text for the week, and then really start writing on Thursday. So at this time I had been living with the idea of thankfulness, listening to sermons on thankfulness, and studying thankfulness. I knew the whole “in all things give thanks” thingy. I didn’t want to give thanks as I swept up mouse poop and get ready for a molar extraction.

But I did it anyway.

They say you have to practice what you preach, so I started thinking about why the mice were in my house. It is really simple, and as you probably know, mice tend to come in during the winter months because they are looking for two things: warmth and food. And it sounds like such a cliché, but I realized that I needed to be thankful for my warm house and the food that is in it.

I went to the dentist later on, and I had to go to a specialist to pull my tooth. He is a personal friend of mine and we have a good relationship outside of the dentist office—or maybe I should say we had a good relationship J. No, we are friends in real life. And that’s part of the problem. When I first went to him for a consultation on my tooth extraction he said that it did need to come out, but, in his words, “There was no hurry.” When I went to see him on Thursday I could see in my file that it was exactly one year and one month ago since he told me there was no hurry. Now there was a bit of a hurry.

When he walked into the room he said, “Kevin, it’s been awhile.”

I replied, “Yeah, I know. Getting me to come back has been kind of like…pulling teeth.”  He was kind enough to laugh.

It was not a pleasant experience, but we got through it. And when the bleeding (and the crying) had stopped, he said to me, “Thanks, we will bill your insurance.”

I’m not thankful that I had to have a tooth pulled. But I am thankful for a friend who could help me out and even giggle at my bad jokes. And I am thankful that my wife has a state job that provides good benefits.

In all things, we give thanks, even when we can’t give thanks for all things.

So that’s the biblical side of things, but what about the science? The Bible repeatedly tells us to be thankful, and science tells us that there is a benefit to it. You will be happier.

A 2013 Harris Poll, which is a public opinion polling organization, found that one out of three people in America consider themselves to be more happy than unhappy. One out of three isn’t bad…if you are talking about batting averages. But one out of three happy people means that two out of three are not happy.

How can this be? I bought a Pepsi the other day, and the commercial told me that it would make me happy. I’ve got a smart phone and a smart tv. The advertising industry exists to make you think that your life is just missing this one thing and if you just buy it, your life will be complete. If not complete, at least you will be happy.

And these things do make us happy…for a bit. But then the newer iPhone comes out and the next model is released or our neighbor gets a bigger one. Science shows that what really makes people happy is gratitude. Without exception, happier people tend to be more thankful for what they have. Let’s walk through three scientific tests that have been conducted and published in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Robert Emmonds conducted a 10-week experiment where he divided 411 people into three random groups. The first group was instructed to write down everything throughout the day that they were thankful for. They carried a journal with them, and when they felt thankful, they wrote it down. That’s it. The second group was to write down everything that irritated them. The third group was to write down anything that changed their mood, either positive or negative.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the third group showed no change, which was kind of expected. The big difference was seen when comparing the first two groups. The group that wrote down what they were thankful for consistently ranked their happiness higher on a scale. But there were more side effects. They were more optimistic and reported experiencing less stress. They didn’t get sick as much. And without being instructed to do so, this group exercised more. They were physically active, which has more positive side effects. The thankful group became more social and they expressed more sympathy toward others.

Second study: Dr. Martin Seligman conducted a study where he asked participants to recall someone from their life, regardless of how long ago it was, who had a positive impact on them. They were to then write that person a personal thank-you note and hand deliver it to them. These people took letters to former teachers, friends, and employers, gave them their thank-you cards, and expressed their gratitude. Seligman found that those who wrote the thank-you notes experienced a sense of happiness over a month after the event. There was a residual happiness associated with this act of gratitude.

Third study: 65 people with a severe neuro-muscular disease were divided into two groups for a three-week trial. The first group was to write down any and all of their observations about their own health, well-being, and attitude, and their care givers were asked to write down what they were observing in their clients. The second group was to write down what they were thankful for while their care givers also simply recorded what they were observing in their clients.

As you can probably predict by now, the group that recorded the things that they were thankful for felt better at the end of the three weeks, while the other group did not experience a change. The group that recorded their gratitude didn’t get miraculously better, but they did experience less irritation and less anxiety. They even observed that they were sleeping better. What sets this study apart from the others is that the care takers also observed this upswing in the gratitude group; in other words, other people noticed the improvement. And the care givers themselves experienced an improved sense of happiness and well-being. The point is, gratitude and happiness are contagious!

You can’t argue with this stuff, it’s science!

So what can we do to make this practical? I mean, come on, we all know that we are supposed to show appreciation and say thank you. And yes, the science behind it is really quite convincing. But who is really going to do this?

I am, and I hope you will, too.

They say that it takes three weeks to make a new practice into a habit. So I’m issuing a challenge to everyone to join me and record the things for which you are thankful. Do whatever you feel most comfortable with: carry a notebook, write it on your smartphone, type it on your computer. Just record it. And if that is too much, at least, at the very least, be mindful of the things that you are thankful for throughout the day. If you can’t write it down, speak it out loud. And by the middle of December, we should be a lot happier!

Here’s the take-home point: we are commanded to be thankful. The Bible tells us over and over again to give thanks, and science has shown that a side effect of being thankful is happiness. The odd thing is that the pursuit of happiness for happiness’s sake often leaves us disappointed. However, the pursuit of thankfulness may be the secret that we have been looking for.

The God who made us loves us and wants us to be happy. That same God has spoken to us throughout his scriptures and told us to give thanks. My prayer for us all this Thanksgiving season is that we can become happier people, happier because we are thankful for what we have been given.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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