Have you ever felt so sad that you thought you may never recover from it? Though it may not always be present to us, sadness is an inevitable part of human life. The human heart is made for joy, but sadness often steals this joy from us. Joy comes from thriving in every area of our lives (or at least the genuine perception that we are). Joy arises as a natural fruit of having harmony in our lives, and in particular, having closeness in relationships with God and with others. But, because we're human, harmony and those relationships break down and joy escapes us. We lose joy because we sense that something is out of place; it is not as it should be or as we want it to be. So we must ask the question if joy is simply caused by external factors or do we have some control over the joy we experience in our lives?
External things can impact us greatly and, in some ways, it really begins there. Having good external forces like a relationship with God and the Church, a loving family, great friends, or even a nice car, or a big boat (and realizing that having these things is better than we deserve) will be the surest sources of joy for us in this life. It will not be the case, however, that joy will stay around for the entirety of our lives simply as a reaction to external things. There will be times when we feel down and we either have to find another way to be joyful or we will be dependent on the forces outside of us that are bringing us down.
The first step to finding joy when you’re feeling down is to realize that how we feel follows what we’re thinking about. So, if you are feeling sad, it is because you are thinking about sad things. Feeling sad can be the proper response to certain situations, like death, severe injury or illness, breakups, fights with friends, etc...Sometimes, however, we are thinking about things that make us a sad and we don’t need to be. This is true even in the case of some of those things listed above. So when we are down and need to move on, we need to find a way to change what we’re thinking about.
The two main realities related to our way of thinking are that we can control the information we take in and we have the amazing ability simply to change what we’re thinking about to something good. When we’re feeling down, it’s really important that we put ourselves in positive environments. Prayer, family, friends, fun, good food, good conversation, humor, or even things like going to a pet store to play with puppies can help bring some positive external factors into our lives. Putting ourselves in environments of love will transform our feelings to hope and eventually back to joy. More than simply good environments, sometimes we will have to consciously decide to push away thoughts that bring us down and replace them with good thoughts and actions. For example, you can think about what good you can accomplish today, write a nice letter to someone you care about, get coffee with a friend you’ve been neglecting, make your favorite baked goods, choose to go on a run or workout, clean your house or your room. I know a lot of this sounds like doing something, but doing good stuff means that we’ve thought about it beforehand. Binge watching TV or movies will only give us space to let the negative thoughts linger. When you’re feeling down, change what you’re thinking about and do something good!
Doing good ultimately makes us happy. Selflessness is the straightest pathway to joy. Choosing not only to think about good things and do some good, but forgetting about ourselves for awhile will free us from what brings us down. It is so easy to get into the habit of negativity. Some of us even find a twisted kind of pleasure from continuous self pity. This will never lead us to the joy our hearts truly seek though. In these moments, we must dig deep, choose to think about and do some good. Ultimately, if we can forget ourselves for a while and focus on others (being a good parent, child, friend, student, employee, employer, human being), then our focus will be shifted completely away from our broken reality to bringing good into the world. We will then not only change our internal feelings, we will bring some good into the world for others.
Ultimately, our faith becomes so vital in these moments. As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” We are reminded that this world is passing and the joys it brings are similarly transient. No matter if things are going well or things are difficult, we must always hold heaven in our hearts and minds. This is a truly beautiful part of our faith. Even though joy escapes us from time to time, hope will keep us positive. In fact, hope is a sort of “gateway drug” to joy. If we keep hope in God’s plan for us in this life and that it will ultimately lead us to perfect, unending happiness, we will always have a reason to rejoice.
St. Paul gives a really good reminder of everlasting things in Colossians 3: 1-2:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
We always need a friendly reminder that our ultimate home is not here. We should not be surprised that joy escapes us when we focus only on things of this life. While we do our best to live in this world, we should always have an eye on heaven. We must always fix our gaze on Jesus. He pioneered the way of our redemption by his own suffering. Likewise, the loss of joy in our lives gives us the opportunity for a Christ-like selflessness that leads us and others to heavenly things.
In the end, when we’re feeling down, we should seek a way to become fixated on the great good that is all around us. For most us, we already have it better than we deserve. It can be so easy to forget that! Placing ourselves in environments of love transforms our minds and eventually our hearts and desires. Choosing to do good for others transforms our habits and allows us to forget ourselves and our problems for a while. Sadness helps us stay close to Jesus who became deeply acquainted with our pain, agony, loneliness, and suffering so that he could be intimately close to us in our brokenness.
Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” Jesus is always with us in our hardest moments of this life and constantly points us to the joy of heaven. There all pain and suffering will be completely forgotten and all of our desires will be satisfied forever. He doesn’t want our lives on earth to be only suffering, unless we have been given a special grace for that. So it would not hurt us to remember and earnestly pray the last line of the Serenity Prayer often: “That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next.” Despite how we are feeling, God has an amazing plan and adventure for our lives. If we stay close to God - even through the hard times, it will end up being a more supreme happiness than we could ever imagine.