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How Much Joy We Have Often Depends Upon Where We Look

By: Woman of Joy-

Lauren Gilbert

In my college Psychology classes-- at a nonreligious, public university--I have my students complete an exercise while I show two quotes on the overhead projector: (1) “Comparison is the thief of joy.” (Bible) and (2) ‘The Prophet teaches that you should not look to those who have more than you… because perception is the source of negative feelings’ (Quran). I tell them that religious texts of all kinds, across human existence, have written about comparison: a general human tendency to measure who we are/what we do/ what we have against that of someone else. And many have often cautioned against it.

I, then, ask my students to spend 5-6 minutes engaging with their social media of choice, to put their headphones on, and to act as if they are at home on their couch “scrolling” mindlessly. When the time is over, I ask them to rate how they feel on a scale of 1 (very unhappy) and - 10 (very happy). The results—even after just 10 minutes-- are often quite telling. Some of my students are noticeably more depressed than when they went into the exercise, some appear to be about the same, and some appear to be more joyful.

We, then, begin to talk about the sorts of content they “curate”, and how their “newsfeeds” impact their mental health. Then we zoom out to talk about the “newsfeeds” we curate in our real lives and how much they impact us. We talk about how we feel, and we talk about where we look. You see, research in Psychology shows that how much joy we have often depends upon where it is that we look. If we look at others who we perceive have more, are better qualified, or have something we want (called upward social comparison), we tend to feel unhappy and worse about ourselves. If we look at others who we perceive have less, are less qualified, or struggle with things that we don’t (called downward social comparison), we tend to feel better about ourselves. This is, of course, of no surprise to anyone. But this isn’t where the conversation ends. Because the fact of the matter is that both of these types of comparison seem to be missing something.

The upward social comparison seems to miss the backstage, off-camera, 9-pm-on-a-regular-Wednesday life of those we admire; the downward social comparison seems to fill our void with pride or feelings of “betterness”, which really isn’t much more joyful or fulfilling over the alternative. And the results in my classroom seem to demonstrate this in real time. Neither those that look “upward” or “downward” seem to be much happier than one another…But there is a group that is. It’s the students who look for the GOOD “all around”, as I’ll call it, that actually fare the best. These are the students who curate their feeds to include breathtaking videos of mountain tops, incredible feats of human strength, those that listen to motivational talks, those that look to be inspired, and those that are reminded of the love of Jesus. These students are the ones that watch videos of baby bunnies, that laugh at the moody awkwardness of cats, those who are reminded to breathe deeply. These are the students who—by way of video—listen to the sound of the rain, who learn how to be a better friend, those who revel in the awe of someone’s recorded sunset.

And, I think, this isn’t the least bit surprising…because research shows that GRATITUDE, focusing on goodness, setting our intention towards love, and keeping our eyes ever on the impressive, the majestic, the remarkable, the courageous, and the kind is ALWAYS a recipe for joy. So much so is this the case that I had a professor in my Ph.D. program in graduate school who required that all of his students sign their emails with 3 things they were grateful for or he would refuse to respond. Because keeping our eye on the GOOD matters. It makes us better humans and it trains our eyes to see more good over time and then to create good ourselves. But practice builds pathways, so doing it over and over and over again—even in the moments that the good only seems to hit surface level (or not at all)—is necessary to tune our hearts and to build the neurological wiring of our brains towards gratitude and joy."Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful," Colossians 4 reads.

And research in psychology would support that: noticing, “attending to” (as we call it in the field), focusing on the good, the magnificent…“… whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) I have no doubt that we are asked by God to do this for many, many reasons…But, in large part, I believe God wanted what was best for us. And, truly, the bible and scientific research support the fact that how much joy we have, depends A LOT upon where we look


..."I have no doubt that we are asked by God to do this for many, many reasons…But, in large part, I believe God wanted what was best for us. And, truly, the bible and scientific research support the fact that how much joy we have, depends A LOT upon where we look"

Dr. Lauren Gilbert writes on all things scientific and Godly. She writes on mental health, on the beautifully mundane in our everyday living, and the factors that promote human flourishing.

Connect with her on Instagram @drlaurengilbert


Thank you so much for taking the time to read March's blog in the Women of JOY series. I pray that it inspires you and empowers you as you seek to find true JOY in Christ alone in any and all circumstances!

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