How to Have a Happy Life

Economist and former Mckinsey partner Caroline Webb recently released a book titled, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. She attempts to show readers how to use behavioral economics and psychology to improve their quality of life. She does this by applying the science to daily tasks and routines.

In a recent interview, Webb was asked what could we do in the morning to set ourselves up to have a good day? Her response immediately drew me in. She explains that our brains are only able to process parts of reality at any given time. So while there may be lots of objects around you — chair, table, wall, flower, lamp, picture carpet, noise, hair on your arms — it’s impossible for you to pay close attention to everything that is in your space. Thankfully, our brains filter out most of what is going on around us.

She goes on to explain that since some things are getting filtered out, we’re all experiencing a very subjective, incomplete version of reality. Once we understand “the rules,” we can shift the way we perceive whatever happens. So what are the rules, at least according to Webb?

The Rules

Webb explains that our brains consciously notice whatever is at the forefront of our minds. So if someone is in a bad mood (she gives the example of spilling coffee on yourself), the brain will recognize that you’re in a bad mood and will begin to shape your perception of everything else in a way that confirms the world is a terrible place. The same goes the other way. If you put yourself in a positive mood, you’ll start to see the world in a more positive light. Another term for this is “confirmation bias” or “selective attention.”

As another example, she points out that if we’re meeting with someone we believe is a jerk, we’re more likely to notice things about them that confirm our judgment. We end up missing qualities that may paint this person in a more positive light. But if we go in aware of our assumptions, we set ourselves up to see and appreciate the good qualities in this person, instead of only noticing the negative.

What Webb offers can be useful to Christians, but what drew me to her advice wasn’t its usefulness or the fact that it was groundbreaking, but the fact that it sounded eerily familiar. I’d read counsel similar to this before — by a man who died over three hundred years ago.

Drawing from Scripture

In a little book called Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory, Jeremiah Burroughs provides wisdom that is, in a sense, similar to Caroline Webb’s. Burroughs advises the reader to have good thoughts of God and his dealings toward us:

Have good thoughts of God and make good interpretations of his dealings toward you. It is very hard to live comfortably and cheerfully among friends when one makes harsh interpretations of the words and actions of another. The only way to keep sweet contentment and comfort in Christian societies is to make the best interpretations of things we can. Likewise, a primary way to help keep comfort and contentment in our hearts is to make good interpretations of God’s dealings with us. (7)

It’s essentially the same point Webb is suggesting, but rather than drawing from science, Burroughs draws from a Christian worldview. For example, James 1:2–4 complements the words of Burroughs,

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Often we struggle to read our Bibles and pray because of negative perceptions we have about God. We envision him as an angry man, with a big stick, ready to smite us every time we get out of line. Therefore, everything that happens to us is viewed in this light.

  • I’m late for work. God hates me.
  • I spill coffee on myself. God is angry at me.
  • I get sick. God is punishing me.

We can’t imagine a God who disciplines, rather than punishes; who loves us like a Father, rather than assesses us like a judge (Proverbs 3:11–12). God is eager to forgive us of our sins, and his wrath was poured out on Jesus so that those who believe the gospel never have to experience it (Romans 5:9). Though he may discipline us, it’s not as an angry executioner, but as a loving Father, for our good and his glory (Hebrews 12:5–11). If we viewed God this way, it would revolutionize the way we see the world and enable us to not only have a good day, but a happy life.

For Our Good

If we embrace that reality that the sovereign God who controls the universe knows us by name and loves us as children and heirs, everything that happens to us will be filtered through these promises. We will begin to see everything, even the hard things, as ultimately good things.

It doesn’t mean we won’t have hard days. It doesn’t mean that some days will not be full of pain and tears. It simply means that we will always remember that the one who controls everything is orchestrating it all for us, and not against us. And one day, he will wipe away every tear from our eyes and we will at last depart from pain, sorrow, and suffering altogether. We will see him face to face and joyfully say, “Our past sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that has been revealed to us” (see Romans 8:18).