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Jesus and the Neuroscience of Happiness

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
May 23, 2017

I had a different title for this talk in our Sunday bulletin but decided this is what I really wanted to talk about: “Jesus and the Neuroscience of Happiness!” But I shared this idea with a friend who seemed to think I was a little crazy; and when I was asked yesterday at an art show by a friend of a friend what I would be preaching on today and told her my title she asked, “Did Jesus say anything about happiness?”

It breaks me heart that so few people know even the basics of what our religion is all about. And I have no idea if this talk will resonate with you as strongly as it did with me. I had so much fun putting this sermon together. Let’s see what you think!

We are a curious species. Our search for meaning has taken us far in our understanding of the cosmos. When the night sky was vivid and clear, before electric lights filled our atmosphere we charted the movement of the planets and the stars and tried to understand their meaning. They probably understood our place in this expanding universe even better than we do.

Some 2500 years ago Greek philosophers, Asian mystics and Middle Eastern prophets began to explore the inner world of what it means to be human.  There were no neuroscientists to explain how we work, but religions began to attempt to name the inner experience in ways that would help humanity to share their understanding and grow in wisdom.
The Gosple of John is one early attempt to explain the powerful experience of encounter with what is most sacred and worthy in humanity.    Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a Jewish rabbi and prophet who wanted his people to expand their understanding of what it meant to be human, to be holy, to realize their high calling as children of God. Everything he said and did reflected that desire. Even his way of dying…fully aware, humble, courageous,      was meant to be a model for how to be fully human.

John’s gospel attempts to put the meaning of Jesus’ life into words. It is the most non-literal of all the gospels. Last week I tried to help us understand that. This week I want to go beyond the words of John to the wisdom he taught that we now can verify through neuroscience.

Much of the content I share today can be found in a wonderful article by Patty de Llosa in Parabola Magazine called       “Finding Joy: The Science of Happiness.” It clarifies what ancient religious teachers have been saying for thousands of years, only now we have proof!

There are seven steps to developing deep and lasting Happiness. First, we must open our hearts and minds to the possibility that happiness, joy and abiding love are possible.

In many cultures there are daily reminders of the presence of the sacred within each human heart. In Muslim countries, you might be asked “How is your heart in this moment?” (or as Jesus always said, “Peace be with you!” ~ Asalamalakim in Arabic.) In India they say, “Namaste, I salute the God in you.” English “Good Morning” or “Good Day” has its roots in God, but now we mostly say “Hello” which was cultivated by the inventor of the telephone as the best greeting in 1876. It would be good to give ourselves daily, moment by moment reminders that we live in the presence of the sacred. We need to be open to the possibility of happiness, if we are to begin to grow in experiencing it.

The Second Step is to be aware of how important being present to this moment truly is. Jesus promised his disciples that he was with them, that in the Spirit of the Advocate, he would always be with them. We can only know that presence of the sacred within if we are actually present to the moment in which we are living.

Studies have shown that most of us are fully present to whatever we are doing only half the time. Those studies also show that people feel less happy when they are distracted. We know that focused attention makes us better athletes, better listeners, better thinkers and  better workers. Staying present and focused in each moment is powerful.

Step Three asks us to begin to uncover our habits. Almost everything we do is habitual. The more able we are to notice that and choose to respond instead of react, the freer we become.

Step Four requires us to address our habit of judging and condemning ourselves and others. Jesus said, “Judge not, for by the measure that you judge so shall you be judged.” Scientists now tell us that our constant inner critic works   against us. We need to replace the habit of condemning ourselves (“I’m so stupid or inadequate, or I always mess up!”) with more realistic appraisals like “I’m human, or I forgot, or      I didn’t know enough, or was unprepared to make the right decision,” which is always more accurate and helpful in going forward. And negative judgments create deep neural pathways in our brains connecting with every negative appraisal we have made in the past. They lock us into patterns that do not serve our true self.

Step Five invites us to make good choices. Easier said than done? The more aware we become of the habits and thought patterns that have dominated our lives, the more able we are to chose wisely. Jesus promised that his Spirit, the Spirit of Truth would be with us to guide and empower us. We can ask ourselves what values we want to live by, what deeply matters to us, and then respond accordingly.

Step Six is learning to deal with stress! Our lives are so constantly filled with it that facing and working with this reality often feels overwhelming. There are many practical tools we can use to mitigate this “soup we swim in.” and allow us to respond rather than react:
         Before beginning the next thing on your “To Do” list say to                        yourself: “I have time.” …(Repeat)
         Take a brief non-essential walk down the hall.
         Peek out the window at the outer world.
         Take a seriously deep sigh that engages your whole body                           right down to your toes.
There are four keys to well-being that allow us to respond to stress. The first is Resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences. It comes easily to some and not to others. Meditation strengthens resilience over time but it takes may thousands of hours to improve. So start, but know you may need to be very gentle with yourself in this department.

The second key to well-being that helps with stress is Outlook. When we can see the positive in others, savor positive          experiences and see another human being as a human being we become healthier. Jesus’ commandment that we love one another is actually good for us! And neuroscience now tells us it can altar the circuitry in our brains to make us stronger.
The third key to well-being is Attention which takes us back to the first step in developing a joyful loving way of life. Notice God’s presence, your presence in this moment.

The fourth key is Generosity! Science has discovered that generosity activates the circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being. According to Dr. Richard Davidson at University of Wisconsin:  “These circuits get activated in a way that is more enduring than the way we respond to other positive incentives, such as winning a game, or earning a prize.” Once again the teachings of our faith coincide with what science is now learning.

All week long I have been contemplating how to teach happiness while dealing with life’s very real challenges ~ my own, my family’s, dear friends in our faith community going through so much! How do I, do we, find balance in the midst of the real world of so much pain and suffering?  How can we dare to be happy, joyful and free when others are not, when we are in pain? Jesus promised that he would not leave us orphaned, that we do not do it alone. Becoming fully present to all that we are feeling and asking for God’s help is a beginning, a blessing. It allows us to be more fully available to help with the crises and suffering of others.

And finally we come to the Seventh Step in achieving lasting, authentic happiness, a meaningful life, lived in love: Breathing!

In John’s Gospel Jesus tells us he is the “I Am” which in Hebrew is the unnamable name of God. We say “Yahweh,” because we add the vowels that aren’t there in the original.      But it is literally the breath of life YH WH.
Breath in ~ Breath out!

We can learn to practice our breathing deeply and fully, down to our toes, deep into any emotion, any thought, any fear. As we deepen and slow our breathing we literally change the structure of our brains. Even genetic patterns are altered.

Jesus ancient teachings and the teachings of mystics in every faith tradition, have been inviting us to live a full and abundant life. It is a gift to practice my faith with you. It is a comfort to know that science is catching up! Can I get an Amen?