Why do we tell “joy stories”?

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” John 15:11

I did not start out the morning with joy; instead, it felt as if a rain cloud was hanging over my head like you see in cartoons – just feeling beaten up by those life-sucking thoughts the devil likes to plant in my head. Why didn’t I get more work done today? Why is my son having such a hard time? Why didn’t I make it to Mass this morning? Why am I sitting here feeling as if the weight of my problems has pressed the joy right out of me?

Really God? You still want me to find joy in the midst of this? I’m not feeling it!brain

At the Prayer Barn, we often talk about the power of telling a “joy story.” In very simple terms, telling a joy story strengthens our brain’s “joy center” – located in the right orbital prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is the only area that never loses its capacity to grow! It grows our entire life. And neuroscientists are discovering that the most important way to strengthen our joy center is in joy-filled, life-giving, face-to-face relationships – when we are glad to be together, and when someone is glad to be with me! The joy-building starts early, in the infant and toddler years, when (ideally) we are in loving, joy-filled communication with our parents and the capacity to build our joy is at its peak.

If we didn’t “grow” our joy capacity early on – if we didn’t develop a deep well of joy to draw on, then as adults we can become overwhelmed by life’s difficulties, and have a hard time recovering from negative events and the debilitating emotions that accompany those events, like sadness, anger, fear, shame, or hopelessness. We will have a very difficult time returning to joy, and connecting with the people we need and love – including God! However, if our joy center is sufficiently developed, if we are empowered by joy, we are able to deal with the roller coaster moments life takes us through, knowing God wants to be with us – that we are the sparkle in His eye – and that He calls us to experience His life-giving, loving presence even in the midst of our pain!

If you grew up in a family that didn’t naturally build your joy center, what can you do? Amazingly, as I mentioned before, God designed the joy center of the brain as the ONLY area that continues to grow through adulthood – and scientists have discovered relatively simple ways, like telling “joy stories,” to build and strengthen the joy center even as an adult!

Hmmm, so why would God design us that way? I have to conclude that based on scripture (see above), and based on the way our brain works, joy is something God earnestly wants for us – not when we get to heaven, but here on earth, in our daily existence, as we go about our humdrum (cleaning toilets yesterday comes to mind) and not-so-humdrum (sitting in the passenger seat as my 15-year-old drives) tasks, and even as I’m sitting in my self-pity and negative thoughts (like the other morning). But I think God especially wants us to be able to return to joy when we encounter those pain-filled moments of our life that we can’t avoid (job loss, health issues, challenging children, various traumas). God knows we have been born into a messy, sinful world – and He has designed us to draw from a deep well of joy so that we can quickly return to a spiritual oasis where He resides and can hold us in His arms, replenishing and restoring us. As we soak in His presence, we truly KNOW we are with Someone who is glad to be with us, Who gets a sparkle in His eye when He looks at us, Who wants the best for us.

And this verse from First John jumped out at me when I read it – because what science eventually discovers, God has already pre-figured in His inspired Word: “Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” (John 1:11-13) So it seems that the Holy Spirit inspired John to seek joy in a way already programmed into us by our loving God – as if he intuitively knew that God designed us to strengthen our joy center in face-to-face encounters – just as scientists have discovered!

On my next post, I’ll explain some ways to build your joy center, including telling a joy story.