Are you happy?
Let me be more specific. I’m not wondering if you skipped down the sidewalk today or if you’ve had a good deep laugh this morning.
Are you satisfied with where you are? Are you where thought you would be? Content?
I don’t think it has ever been more difficult to be satisfied and content. Every day we encounter hundreds of advertisements all based on a common story – we’ll be happy if we buy this new thing or experience.
Open your favorite social media app and the temptation to compare our “boring”, normal day to someone else’s spectacular moment is inescapable. Tools which can lead to incredible connections end up leading us to make crushing comparisons.
You didn’t begin this year planning to be unhappy, unsatisfied or frustrated. Neither did I. We were hoping to have a great experience but somewhere between January 1 and today, life got in the way. “Stuff” showed up in our live which wasn’t on the calendar, nor our to-do list…and it ruined everything.
Responding to Life’s Surprises
I recently reflected on my marriage on a year-by-year basis. In each year I’ve been married to my wife (we just started year 9), we’ve had unexpected challenges. These challenges have tested us individually and as a couple. Challenges like crushing debt, career detours, extended hospital stays, personal injustice and battles with cynicism.
Our trust has been tested. Our patience has been pushed. We’ve had years where we kept telling each other and ourselves, “this is just a phase, this will pass.” And sometimes, it did pass quickly. Other times, the “phase” continued for years. But we’re here today in the middle of one of the best seasons of our lives.
A Life-Transforming Plan
Through the difficulty of the last decade or so, we’ve learned to exercise five muscles. Like a consistent workout plan, these exercises have transformed the way we approach what life throws our way. We’ve lost our sense of discipline at times, but consistently, we’ve added these mental habits to our program. By engaging these exercises, regardless of our life experience, we’ve survived (and even thrived) when we were far from happy, satisfied, and content with life.
You’re capable of exercising these five muscles. You can put this plan into practice in your life beginning today. You have what it takes. And if you engage these five muscles consistently, over time, you’ll transform your ability to survive and thrive. Even when you’re far from happy and satisfied, you’ll discover opportunities and gifts along the way.
1. Gratitude Muscle
Few things will alter your perspective like giving thanks on a daily basis. Many of us treat gratitude as a seasonal experience we engage in during November. However, gratitude is not restricted to a season, nor is it an energy booster like Red Bull. It disciplines our minds and hearts to focus on the good amidst the bad.
Gratitude empowers us to face the difficulty in our lives, even the challenges we cannot change. Gratitude doesn’t change our experience; gratitude changes our perspective on our experience. Perspective is everything.
We can exercise this muscle by pausing every day to name, write or share 3 things we’re grateful for in our lives. If we exercised this muscle every day for a year, we’d have named over 1,000 things. In every seaon of our lives, we can give thanks. If we give thanks in the struggle, we’ll be grateful and not entitled in the success. If we give thanks in the success, we’ll be better prepared for the future struggles.
2. Hustle Muscle
Depending on where you live and who you listen to or read, you may have differing opinions on this word “hustle.” I like the concept because it allows me to fight the creepy entitlement to which my generation (and all others) are so susceptible.
We need to hustle because none of us are entitled. We don’t hustle to establish our self-worth; instead, we hustle to lean into and take seriously our calling and life purpose. Too many of us admire or envy the accomplishments of other people while failing to see the hard work which propelled them forward.
We need this to exercise our hustle muscle because what we want in life doesn’t come from binge watching another show on Netflix. We have all the time we need to accomplish all God intends and plans for us. However, we misallocate that time – we waste it. We entertain ourselves to death. Some of us could accomplish more if we gave up a TV show or two a week or stopped watching football on the weekends in the fall. Instead of using social media to connect with other people, we scroll endlessly which fuels comparison and a feeling of inadequacy. When we could come up with a creative solution to our problem, we let it defeat us.
Many of us are workaholics, so we might resist exercising this muscle. But being a workaholic could have more to do with the next muscle than a willngness to hustle.
3. No Muscle
This is the muscle I have worked the hardest to strengthen. My default response to opportunities and requests from other people is “yes.” Luckily for me, I married a woman whose default response is “no.” My wife has taught me more about the power of using our no muscle than anyone else in my life.
When we fail to exercise this muscle, we let the whims and desires of other people run our lives. Without the boundary saying no creates, we give the power God has entrusted to us over to someone else. We live like we have limitless energy, money, and time and forget we are a limited resource. We are not omni-anything. Though our actions say otherwise, we are not all-powerful, all-energtic, all-wealthy, nor will we life forever on earth.
Saying no is one of the hardest things we will do, but it is also one of the most freeing things. Author Bob Goff talks about the power of saying no in his book, Love Does, where he describes his habit of quitting something every Thursday. He has learned how saying no empowers him to more intentionally and successfully say yes.
4. Prayer Muscle
Even for those of us who claim devotion to God, prayer is often more of a last resort than a first option. We reach for it when we’ve exhausted every other avenue. We look to our own resources before we look to God’s.
I know those of you who read my blog come from all places when it comes to faith. But as a pastor and follower of Jesus, I find it hard to approach life as if I can do it all on my own. I’m overwhelmed on a daily basis by the challenges I face as a man, husband, father, pastor and writer. Without prayer, I’d be defeated when I stopped to think about my limits and inadequacy as a human.
Instead, a daily prayer habit remind us we cannot do this on our own. Praying strengthens our dependence on God and turns our eyes to resources beyond our own. I struggled with exercising this muscle so I enlisted a friend who I pray with nearly every day. Some days, we talk on the phone. Other days, we exchange text messages or voice mails.
I started praying with this buddy less than a month before I entered a major season in my life where I had to make significant decisions. By beginning this discipline, I was ready to lean on it when things got crazy.
5. Joy Muscle
I started this article by exploring our happiness. Happiness is different from joy. Author Margaret Feinberg defines joy in her book, Fight Back With Joy. Writing about joy as she battled cancer, Feinberg shared this perspective.
“Most of the definitions I have heard about joy (and probably you, too) define it more by what it isn’t than what it is. I constantly heard that happiness is based on circumstance but joy is not. I am now convinced the writers of the Bible would say that, the reason we have joy is because we have great circumstances. If you are a child of God, you are drenched in the grace and mercy of God. Who has better circumstances than that?”
I passed up the idea of joy because of personal baggage. A woman named Joy ruined the word for me when she made life miserable for our family growing up. The story is too long to tell here, but I spent many years of my life glossing over the word joy whenever I heard about or read it.
But, how empty is life without joy? Life is incomplete without the experience Feinberg describes. But like the title of her book, joy is often a fight. In some seasons, it comes easy. At other times, we will have to stretch and scream to find it.
Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert understands this reality so she has a jar in her house where she celebrates joy on a daily basis. Every day, she takes a small corner of paper and writes down a moment of joy. Maybe it was a funny story shared over coffee, a book she’s reading, a text message from a friend, or a delicious meal. Her giant mason jar is filled with thousands of moments. She pulls out moments and reads a few when the fight for joy is especially fierce, reminding herself of how quietly joy can sneak up on us and suprise us.
Creating and Working Your Plan
So what would a workout plan to exercise these muscles look like?
Gratitude – Take a couple minutes every day and write down 3 things for which you’re grateful. I share mine online regularly with the hashtag #GratitudeMuscle.
Hustle – Identify an area in your life where either entitlement or despair are creeping in on you. Determine one thing you have in your power to do and work hard to control what you can control.
No – Where are you tempted to say yes, but you really want to say no? Do it. Maybe you could adopt Bob Goff’s Quitting Thursday habit. Or you could start putting your health and sanity above the opinion of other people and say no. You probably already know what you want to say no to and this is your permission slip to say it! Tell someone what you need to say no to and give them a deadline to follow up with you.
Prayer – Set a daily reminder in your phone to go off at the same time every day. At that time, regardless of what you’re doing, say a prayer. It could be short or it could be longer. You could pray by yourself or with someone else.
Joy – Remember joy isn’t a product of your feelings or circumstances. What if you began a “joy jar” like Liz Gilbert? One moment of joy per day in the jar. What one thing happened yesterday which brought a smile to your face and lifted your heart?
The Power of Mental Habits
In the Scriptures, the Apostle Paul talks about how he’s changing the way he thinks and how that’s impacting how he lives. “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”
Like any workout, you can’t exercise every muscle equally every day. But a plan to consistently exert each muscle over time transforms your body.
Which of these muscles needs the most work in your life? What are you going to do today to begin strengthening it?