Do you have a pencil? Place it in your teeth, and don’t let it touch your lips. Great! We’ll come back to this. Now, think of something you enjoy. Coffee and a Sunday paper, beautiful hiking weather, an unexpected snow day, a pencil that tastes like beef jerky. Whatever it is, the reason you enjoy it is ultimately that it makes you happy.
If we could draw happiness out of a stream or pluck it from a tree, we would. We would seal it up in jam jars on the counter, sorted by flavor: delight, joy, contentment, belonging, peace.
Everybody wants happiness, but it doesn’t come in jam jars. Though we may not always know where it comes from, we can see the effects. When people are happy, we smile. When positive, we nod. When amused, we laugh.
But here’s something interesting: Scientists analyzing happiness have discovered that the thing also works in reverse. When you smile, you become happier.
A popular psychology book called 59 Seconds, Think a Little, Change a Lot lists a digest of three experiments testing this “proprioceptive” idea that the behavior can cause the thoughts instead of the other way around.
In the first study, people in one group were asked to furrow their brows. Those in the other group were asked to smile. The result: Members of the latter group had significantly happier moods simply because they used their smile muscles.
In the second study, participants looked at products scrolling across a large screen. Some scrolled horizontally, some scrolled vertically. Participants favored the random products moving vertically, apparently simply because they were unknowingly nodding their heads.
In the third study, people read Far Side cartoons. Half held pencils in their mouths using only their lips. Half held pencils in their mouths using only their teeth. The latter group found the cartoons much funnier, without realizing that while the others were frowning, their mouths had been forced into a bit of a smile!
You can drop the pencil now. But why not leave it in?
Another author collected hundreds of studies in a book called Feelings: The Perception of Self. All of them concluded that behavior can actually cause feelings.
Maybe this phenomenon seems like a magical shortcut to happiness—or, if your eyes are scrolling side-to-side, maybe you think of it more as cutesy junk science. But nod your head and think about this: It reflects an important truth about happiness.
“Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established” (Proverbs 16:3).
The Bible teaches that our actions flow from our thoughts. But in this proverb, the Creator of happiness indicates that the reverse can also be true: Thoughts can flow from actions. In real-life terms, if we take action and do what God commands, our minds and hearts will be settled, mature, at peace—happy.
The Bible often stresses how actions matter. The book of James, for instance, teaches that faith is “dead” without works. Proverbs 29:18 has this nugget: “[H]e that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Jesus Christ Himself said, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17). If you want to be happy, keeping God’s law, doing what God says, is the way.
Perhaps we think, But I can’t do it if I don’t feel it first. We think it’s only natural if we let our emotions dictate our actions. But the conventional wisdom is wrong on this. Letting our emotions drive life makes the pursuit of happiness like running on a treadmill and riding a rollercoaster at the same time. We must do good works, and the happiness will follow.
A great Creator designed the happiness you experience when your friend helps you, your spouse loves you, or your child makes you laugh. He wants the effect of happy thoughts to be established in your mind, and He tells you the cause: Take action! Do what sometimes you feel like not doing. Chat with a group of people. Find a little something to joke about. Force your mouth into a smile. And keep a well-chewed pencil around. ▪