Just as the old dog offered the younger dog a new perspective concerning his approach to pursuing happiness, I am urging you to examine your perspective on the matter. You must create a healthy perspective about happiness before attempting to model the habits of happy people. Your perspective makes all the difference in the world. Your perspective means your point of view, the way you see and interpret life around you.
One minister had established a time during his Sunday service when the children all marched past the pulpit, singing a recessional hymn, just before going into their Sunday school classrooms.
“For me, as their pastor,” he reflected, “one of the high points of the service was the privilege of catching a smile from each child and giving one in return. I tried never to miss a single one, but one day apparently I failed. A little, curly-haired four-year-old ran out of the procession and threw herself into the arms of her mother, sobbing as though her heart was broken,” he said. “After the service I sought out the mother. She said that when she had quieted the little one and asked why she had cried, she received this pathetic answer: ‘I smiled at God, but he didn’t smile back to me!’ For her I stood for God. I had failed with my smile, and the world went dark.”1 This minister found out in a rather awkward way that people’s perspectives are their realities.
I made a similar discovery several years ago while working in the field of consulting engineering. Much of my job had to do with designing wastewater treatment systems and writing reports about the building and maintenance of new technology. I started having terrible headaches that lasted from morning to evening each day. Since I wear glasses, I thought maybe I needed a new prescription due to excessive computer work or my getting older.
I scheduled an appointment with my optometrist, and he gave me a thorough eye exam. “Nothing is wrong with your eyes or the prescription of your lenses,” he concluded. “Perhaps your company is working you too hard,” he added. “It’s probably the stress of the job and the amount of reading you’re doing, compounded by the excessive hours you spend staring at the computer screen.” Instantly I felt myself becoming angry at what my job was doing to me. My boss is a slave driver. He’s trying to kill me, I thought.
Before leaving the optometrist’s office, I decided to have the optician tighten some loose screws in my glasses. As he adjusted the screws, he said to me, “Sir, do you realize that the frame of your glasses is bent?”
“No,” I said.
“Have you been having headaches?” he asked. My eyes shot open as my head bobbed up and down to say yes. I couldn’t believe it. I was about to leave the eyeglass store angry at my boss, the company, and every one of my assignments, all because my glasses were out of alignment.
Some have said, “perspective is reality.” In other words, the perspective you have, whether right or wrong, establishes your reality. The way you see others, the way you feel emotionally, the way you interpret the world around you, and even the judgments you make are all shaped by your perspective. As a result, when you approach the subject of happiness, you must continually reevaluate your perspective to ensure that it is accurate. If it is not, you are likely to operate under wrong assumptions, which may negatively affect your mood, judgments, emotions, and outlook on life. In a sense, your perspective—not your situation—may be the cause of your unhappiness. Therefore, performing regular perspective checks is an important exercise.
Oftentimes we allow our emotions to get out of control simply because we do not take the time to assess the accuracy of our perspectives. A perspective is formed with every experience. And if we are not careful, our reactions to crises, problems, or uncomfortable interactions with others can bring about a whole host of thoughts that generate a faulty perspective. This is precisely why Daniel Goleman in his popular book Working with Emotional Intelligence emphasizes the point that emotional awareness is one of the foundational skills vital to becoming emotionally intelligent.2 Emotional intelligence is a relatively new phrase that acknowledges that one can gain knowledge about people and relationships from the emotions present in the process of relating to one another. Emotional awareness simply means the ability to recognize your emotions and their effects. The more in tune you are to your emotions and their potential to give you an incorrect perspective, the more emotionally intelligent and happier you will be.
Abraham Lincoln made it a practice never to show his anger in public. He felt that it was important to avoid the possible relational conflicts angry outbursts can bring, particularly when created by the forming of a hasty perspective. Instead, he would express his thoughts in a lengthy letter to the erring party. Gary McIntosh, a student of Lincoln’s leadership style, writes, “He would then hang on to the letter and read it periodically until the anger subsided, finally disposing of it, having never mailed it. It was in this way that he could vent his feelings without giving needless offense to others, which would create barriers to his leadership.”3 Lincoln’s mastery of checking his perspective, which positively affected his behavior, is one of the ways he maintained self-control and a pleasant state of mind and also earned his followers’ respect.
Lincoln’s habit in dealing with conflict points to the value of inner-directed behavior. You can learn to master a healthy perspective by applying a four-point approach to handling difficulties. Ask yourself:
1. Am I responding impulsively?
2. Is this the worst thing that can happen to me?
3. What do I want my future to look like?
4. How can I establish a strategy for happiness as part of the overall solution?
These four points can be adjusted and personalized to aid you in establishing the most accurate perspectives possible. The bottom line, however, is finding a way to evaluate how you look at things. You cannot achieve happiness if you are using wrong evaluations. Our emotions are usually connected to our interpretations, which are created from the perspectives we form. The four checkpoints provide a safeguard to help you develop a healthy perspective that can lead to happiness. Let’s look at each one.
About four years ago on April 1—we Americans call this day April Fools’ Day—my daughter Danielle pulled one over on me. On April Fools’ Day, pranksters use practical jokes to trick or mislead a family member or friend into believing something that isn’t true. I was engrossed in writing a business plan and completely oblivious that it was April Fools’ Day.
At school that day, Danielle and the rest of her teenage friends played practical jokes on one another and anyone else they could find. When she came home, she said to me with a grave expression on her face, “Dad, I was expelled from school today.” Because I have stressed the value of a good education to both my daughters, I instantly became enraged on the inside. But knowing that exploding would not be the best way to handle this, I paced back and forth before responding to her statement. When I stopped and was about to give a response to her announcement, she laughed and said, “Ha, ha, ha, April Fools—I was just joking!” She then went into the kitchen to get a snack.
Little did she know what had been churning inside me. I was about to say something I should not have—an impulsive comment was about to fly out of my mouth. Although she had simply pulled a fast one on me, my anger did not subside for another half hour. After I calmed down, I realized how destructive an impulsive response to bad news can be.
Establish a rule that bad news cannot be responded to impulsively, and you will find a wealth of satisfaction. A levelheaded response will help you maintain a positive state of mind.
This question brings to fore a long-term perspective regarding bad news or painful circumstances. The difficulty that confronts you should be viewed in light of your entire life, so that you ask yourself, “Is this bad situation the worst thing that can happen over the span of my life?” The answer is almost always no. And the no answer will help you to formulate a healthy perspective and safeguard your emotional state. This intellectual filter becomes a checkpoint to help you achieve and maintain a state of happiness.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through human hearts. . . . I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”4 These words convey Solzhenitsyn’s discovery that he alone had power over his perspective concerning his imprisonment in a Soviet labor camp. And if a healthy perspective can be controlled in such a horrendous situation as a concentration camp, shouldn’t we be able to implement this checkpoint all the more in lesser situations? Ultimately, you alone must answer the question, Is this the worst thing that can happen to me? Your answer will affect your perspective on happiness.
Before you respond to a crisis, ask yourself this important question: What do I want my future to look like? This question forces you to rethink the actions that you may be tempted to take during difficult times. Your present state of happiness or the lack thereof reflects the choices and decisions you made yesterday. And because thoughts of the future may not have been factored into your past decisions, you are now reaping what you’ve sown. If you want to end the perpetual cycle of pain or unhappiness, placing a high priority on the future can make a huge difference.
I recently performed the nuptials for a couple that pulled out all the stops for their wedding day. Two stretch limousines—one a Mercedes Benz and one a Rolls Royce—were parked in front of the church. Other features of this gala included rare flowers, upscale furnishings, a mini orchestra, a choir, and expensive favors for the nearly seven hundred guests. The ceremony alone must have cost about $50,000, in addition to the reception hall, catered food, and two-week honeymoon to a Caribbean island. Though both the bride and the groom are professionals, they are not millionaires or the children of well-to-do parents. And while I enjoyed the sumptuous food and appreciated the extravagant pampering, I could not stop thinking about how this couple had foolishly spent close to $100,000 in a single day. Even though it was their wedding day, I was concerned about how little this couple had invested in planning their marriage. Like so many people, they were only thinking about the moment and not about the future.
You safeguard your happiness when you value your future. Regularly ask yourself the question What do I want my future to look like? The answer will force you to take an active role today in preparing for tomorrow’s happiness.
If you want to create a healthy perspective that can lead to a state of happiness, the strategy you formulate must include a moral guideline for living. The code you create and ultimately live by will prevent such emotional baggage as guilt, regret, and second-guessing.
God implemented such a strategy to guide the behavior of the Jewish people. And today the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1–17) still serve as a moral compass in the Judeo-Christian community. God’s intent was to provide a moral code that would safeguard the newfound freedom and happiness the Israelites gained after escaping Egypt. Changing their perspectives from the previous lifestyle of downtrodden slaves would require a new strategy if freedom and happiness are to be sought after. However, the Jews, like many people today, reversed God’s commandments because they thought that the opposite of what he prescribed would give them happiness. Often people rewrite the Ten Commandments in this kind of upside-down fashion:
1. You shall have no other gods before me . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
5. Honor your father and your mother . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
6. You shall not commit murder . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
7. You shall not commit adultery . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
8. You shall not steal . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or anything that belongs to your neighbor . . . unless it makes you unhappy.
The best approach to happiness is to follow the Commandments the way they were originally given in Exodus 20.
The four checkpoints I have outlined here have enabled me to develop and maintain a healthy and accurate perspective on life. And the added bonus is that they are based on the Bible. As Scripture says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your [God’s] word” (Ps. 119:9). This and other foundational truths from Scripture create the necessary mental filters to help purify how we look at what happens to us. When we do this, God is honored in our assessments. In the case of the young man referenced in this verse, his life is kept pure and honorable before God because he allows the Bible to have a strong and final control over his actions and opinions. In other words, what God thinks and decides about a matter is what the young man seeks to adopt as his own view. He is in essence demonstrating that a partnership with God helps him achieve personal satisfaction.
Remember Madonna’s response that she doesn’t even know anyone who is happy? Well, that shouldn’t surprise you. The old cliché rings true: money cannot buy happiness. Money and fame coupled with an outlandish, decadent lifestyle didn’t buy Madonna happiness. Happiness is not subject to your wealth, social status, race, or educational level. Happiness does not elude some people due to their low level on the social ladder, nor is it guaranteed to others because of their high achievements. The common definition of happiness applies to all; happiness means having a sense of personal satisfaction. Given that simple definition, we can reasonably conclude that everyone and anyone should be able to live in a state of happiness.
As a minister, I am continually looking for new ways of helping people find happiness. Despite all of our advances in medicine and psychology, I find that the Bible provides the simplest and most valuable direction. In a letter written by the apostle Paul during his imprisonment in a Roman jail, he reveals that he has learned to be happy despite his circumstances: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12). In commenting on this verse, the eminent New Testament Greek scholar Jac Müeller writes, “He [Paul] has learned . . . in the school of life, and now he knows by virtue of his own experience how to be abased by need and want and adverse circumstances, and how to be provided for in an abundant way.”5 Paul’s life experiences became the laboratory where the self-discovery of happiness occurred.
When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he was on trial for being a missionary of Christianity. He was facing a death sentence, albeit on trumped-up charges. He had every reason to be angry, bitter, and unhappy. Yet he confidently affirmed that he was “content,” which means that he was personally satisfied. Although Paul was quite obviously somewhere he did not deserve to be and was being held against his will, he wrote that his personal satisfaction was not determined by his situation. Rather, it was unshaken because he had learned the secret of being content.
Two important points are gleaned from his statement: (1) happiness has very little to do with circumstance and more to do with perspective; and, (2) the secret of personal satisfaction can be learned.