The Habit of Happiness

J. R. Miller, 1898

Our habits make us. Like wheels running on the road, they wear the tracks or ruts in which our life moves. Our character is the result of our habits. We do the same thing over and over a thousand times, and by and by it becomes part of ourselves.

"Sow a thought and reap an act;
 Sow an act and reap a habit;
 Sow a habit and reap a character."

For example, one is impatient today in some matter. Tomorrow there is another trial and the impatience is repeated. Thus, on and on, from day to day, with the same result. It begins to be easier to give way to the temptation, than to resist it. Again and again the stress is felt and yielded to, and at length we begin to say of the person, that he has grown very impatient. That is, he has given way so often to his feelings, that impatience has become a habit. If he had resisted the first temptation, restraining himself and keeping himself quiet and sweet in the trial; and then the second, the third, the fourth, the tenth time, had done the same, and had continued to be patient thereafter, whatever the pressure of suffering or irritation, we would have said that he was a patient man. That is, he would have had formed in him at last, the fixed habit of patience. As we say again, it would have become "second nature" with him to hold his imperious feelings in check; however he might have been tried. Patience would then have become part of his character.

In like manner, all the qualities which make up the disposition are the result of habit. The habit of truthfulness, never deviating in the smallest way from what is absolutely true, yields at length truth in the character. The habit of honesty, insisted upon in all dealings and transactions, fashions the feature of honesty in the life and fixes it there with rocklike firmness.

It is proper, therefore, and no misuse of words, to speak of the habit of happiness. No doubt there is a difference in the original dispositions of people, in the quality of cheerfulness or gloom which naturally belongs to them. Some people are born with a sunny spirit, others with an inclination to sadness. The difference shows itself even in infancy and early childhood. No doubt, too, there is a difference in the influences which affect disposition in the first months and years of life. Some mothers make an atmosphere of joy for their children to grow up in, while others fill their home with complaining, fretfulness, and discontent. Young lives cannot but take something of the tone of the home atmosphere into the disposition with which they pass out of childhood.

Yet, in spite of all that heredity and early education and influence do—each one is responsible for the making of his own character. The most deep seated tendency to sadness, can be overcome and replaced by happy cheerfulness. The gospel of Christ comes to us and tells us that we must be born again, born anew, born from above, born of God, our very nature recreated. Then divine grace assures us that it is not impossible even for the most unholy life, to be transformed into holiness. The being that is saturated with sin, can be made whiter than snow. The wolf can be changed into lamb-like gentleness. The fiercest disposition can be trained to meekness. There is no nature, therefore, however unhappy it may be because of its original quality or its early training, which cannot, through God's help, learn the lesson of happiness.

The way to do this, is to begin at once to restrain the tendency to gloomy feeling and to master it. We should check the first shadow of inclination to discouragement. We should choke back the word of discontent or complaining, which is trembling on our tongue, and speak instead a word of cheer. We should set ourselves, to the task of keeping sweet and sunny.

It will make this easier for us if we think of our task as being only for one day at a time. It should not be impossible for us even if we have things disheartening or painful to endure—to keep happy for only one day. Anybody should be able to sing songs of gladness, through the hours of a single short day. At the time of evening prayer, we should confess our failures; and the next morning begin the keeping of another day, bright and joyous, unstained by gloom, resolved to make our life more victorious than the day before.

At first the effort may seem utterly to fail—but if the lesson is kept clearly before our eyes, and we are persistent in our determination to master it, it will not be long until the result will begin to show itself. It takes courage and perseverance—but the task is not an impossible one. It is like learning to play on the piano, or like training the voice for singing. It takes years and years to become proficient in either of these arts. It may take a lifetime to learn the lesson of joy—but it can be learned. Men with the most pronounced and obdurate gloominess of disposition have, through the years, become men of abounding cheerfulness. We have but to continue in the practice of the lesson, until repetition has grown into a fixed habit, and habit has carved out happiness as a permanent feature of our character, part of our own life.

The wretched discontent which makes some people so miserable themselves, and such destroyers of happiness in others, is only the natural result of the habit of discontent yielded to and indulged through years. Anyone, who is conscious of such an unlovely, un-Christlike disposition, should be so ashamed of it that he will set about at once conquering it and transforming his gloomy spirit, into one of happiness and joyousness.

Let no one think of happiness as nothing more than a desirable quality, a mere ornamental grace, which is winsome—but is not an essential element in a Christian life, something which one may have or may not have, as it chances. Happiness is a duty, quite as much a duty as truthfulness, honesty, or good temper. There are many Scripture words which exhort us to rejoice. Jesus was a rejoicing man. Although a "man of sorrows," the deep undertone of His life, never once failing, was gladness. Joy is set down as one of the fruits of the Spirit, a fruit which should be found on every branch of the great Vine. Paul exhorted his friends to rejoice in the Lord. There are almost countless incitements to Christian joy. We are to live a songful life. There are in the Scriptures many more calls to praise, than to prayer.

But how are we to get this habit of happiness into our life? The answer is very simple—just as we get any other habit wrought into our life. There are some people to whom the lesson does not seem hard, for they are naturally cheerful. There are others who seem to be predisposed to unhappiness, and who find it difficult to train themselves into joyful mood. But there is no Christian who cannot learn the lesson. The very purpose of divine grace, is to make us over again, to give us a new heart.

A man who has formed the habit of untruthfulness and then becomes a Christian, may not say that he never can learn now to be truthful—that untruthfulness is fixed too obdurately in his being. No evil can be so stained into the soul's texture—that grace cannot wash it white. The love of Christ in a person makes him a new man, and whatever the old is, it must give way. So, though we have allowed ourselves to drift into a habit of gloom and sadness, there is no reason why we should not get our heart attuned to a different key, and learn to sing new songs. This is our duty, and whatever is our duty—we can do by the help of Christ.

The secret of Christian joy—is the peace of Christ in the heart. Then one is not dependent on circumstances or conditions. Paul said he had learned in whatever state he was, therein to be content. That is, he had formed the habit of happiness and had mastered the lesson so well, that in no state or condition, whatever its discomforts were, was he discontented. We well know, that his circumstances were not always congenial or easy. But he sang songs in his prison with just as cheerful a heart and voice as when he was enjoying the hospitality of some loving friend. His mood was always one of cheer, not only when things went well—but when things went adversely. He was just as songful on his hard days—as on his comfortable days.

Then Paul gives us the secret of his abiding gladness, in the word he uses—"content." It means self-sufficed. He was self sufficed—that is, he carried in his own heart the springs of his own happiness. When he found himself in any place, he was not dependent on the resources of the place for his comfort. The circumstance might be most uncongenial. There might be hardship, suffering, poverty; but in himself he had the peace of Christ, and this sustained him so that he was content.

There is no other unfailing secret of happiness. Too many people are dependent upon external conditions—the house they live in, the people they are with, their food, their companions, the weather, their state of health, the comforts or discomforts of their circumstances. But if we carry with us such resources that things outside us cannot make us unhappy, however uncongenial they may be—then we have learned Paul's secret of contentment, which is the Christian's true secret of a happy life.