If anybody has the right to be joyless, it’s Job.
Consider this: in the breadth of 42 chapters, he is tested by God to the brink of mental and physical collapse. He’s robbed of his wealth, his family, his health, and any semblance of mental calm. The entire book is an exercise in drama and trauma.
But even in the face of terrible loss, Job holds fast to his joy: “Once more will he fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with rejoicing” (8:21). Talk about resolve.
We may not face trials as extreme as this Old Testament figure, but 21st-century living can be a drag. A brief scan of an online news site yields these depressing headlines: “FBI Seeking More Victims of Serial Child Molester,” “11-Year-Old with Autism Kept inside Dog Cage,” “Iraq Insurgency Has New Rising Star.” Life isn’t easy.
The stresses in our personal lives are not the stuff of national news, but they can still weigh down our spirits. How can we find calm in the chaos? Serenity in the stress?
Anne Bryan Smollin, CSJ, has devoted her life to finding answers to those questions. She is an international speaker on wellness and spirituality, and the author of Tickle Your Soul: Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often and God Knows You’re Stressed: Simple Ways to Restore Your Balance, both from Sorin Books. She also has a doctorate in counseling psychology from Walden University. But beyond her impressive credentials, Sister Anne is disarmingly funny.
When she sat down with St. Anthony Messenger at our booth in Anaheim, California, during the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in 2013, her wit and wisdom drew a crowd. By the end of our interview, 15 passersby stood captivated. The many people to whom she spoke a day earlier at the Congress were in stitches. Sister Anne is funny, yes, but her message is no joke.
Good and Bad Stress
According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 72 percent say their stress levels have increased in the last five years. The top sources of stress include money, work, the economy, family responsibilities, relationships, and personal health. We can be a high-stress culture. So how do we cope?
“Some stress is good for us—like deadlines,” Sister Anne says. “It’s the distress that we really have to deal with. Because if we don’t deal with it, it deals with us. And then you open up your body to diverticulitis, colitis, migraine headaches, heart attacks, cancer.”
Sister Anne suggests we become more in tune with our bodies and our behavior. Under stress, some people eat more—others not at all. We tend to drive faster, sleep less, and lash out at friends and family. But life is about choices, Sister Anne says. And sometimes our choices increase those stresses.
“Look at the behaviors in your life. And then ask, ‘What are the things that feed my heart and soul?’ We need to get in touch with our choices. So then we are being responsible for ourselves and taking care of ourselves. It doesn’t mean all the stress won’t be there, but it’s a different way of handling it. And then what happens is we keep that sense of balance in our lives. We find the joy and the happiness. We trip over it!”
Sometimes, though, stress and anxiety find us regardless of our choices. Difficult coworkers, cantankerous neighbors, intolerable relatives—all of whom can be tough to avoid—can wreak havoc on our spirits. Sister Anne calls these people “crazymakers,” and says they should be handled with caution.
“We have research right now that says if you hang around enough negative people, you’re going to be physically ill,” she says. “What we don’t want are these crazymakers to decide for us how we’re going to act, how we’re going to think, where we’re going to spend our time. And we don’t have to let them in our minds. We don’t have to rent out that space in our minds to people.”
Self-protection is crucial, Sister Anne asserts. “Create barriers so that we don’t let certain people in our own space. Difficult people can do damage. They’re toxic. It’s not healthy. We’re not going to erase all the negative people. All we can do is choose how we will interact with them and how we respond to them.
A significant part of Sister Anne’s ministry involves the healing power of laughter, and there’s a good bit of scholarship behind it. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter has been shown to fill our bodies with oxygen-rich air, ease tension in our muscles, and boost our immune systems. A good laugh can also give our souls a lift, but first we have to lighten up.
“We take ourselves too seriously, and that’s the opposite of what the Gospel message is,” Sister Anne says. “We walk around like the whole world is on our shoulders. Even at church, people don’t look happy. We don’t look at each other. We’re not connected with each other. And yet that’s what it’s all about.”
The Bible is filled with references to joy. Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to laugh. The Book of Proverbs maintains that a “glad heart lights up the face.” In the Psalms we’re told that it’s pleasing to God when we “shout for joy.” Jesus himself was a source of positivity. “I challenge all of us to go through the New Testament,” she explains. “Tell me you wouldn’t want to hang around Jesus. It was a time filled with good, healthy, positive energy.”
Joy is portable, and Sister Anne never leaves home without it. She recalls a story of a recent flight when her plane was grounded on the tarmac for almost three hours. Connecting flights would be missed. The agitation and exhaustion among travelers were palpable. But she refused to buy in to the negative—an easy pitfall for many of us. Sister Anne and a married couple seated next to her ended up entertaining the whole plane. Tensions gradually eased. Joy won.
“You can take a bad situation, and you can find a way to deal with it. God puts humor in our lives. There’s energy that comes from it. It connects people,” she says.
Sister Anne’s blueprint for a balanced life is effective—and relatively painless. She eats properly (despite the occasional lapse, she admits), and she gets enough sleep. Exercise is important, as is prayer. But it’s also about attitude. We choose how we behave. We are the creators of the energies we put out into the world.
“We choose our attitude,” she says. “If you choose to be negative, that’s not healthy for you or anybody else. It drags you down. What we look for we find. Our minds are powerful things. So you’ll look for negative people.
You’ll look for negative situations. That’s what you’re going to find.”
Joy Is Contagious
It teeters on cliché anymore, but an attitude of gratitude is essential for a healthy life. Sister Anne recommends a simple exercise each night before we lay head to pillow. “Before you go to bed at night—and you have to do this every night for the rest of your life, by the way—sit on the side of your bed and think of five things that you’re grateful for that happened during the day. Go to bed. Next night, do the same thing. By the third night, you’re sleeping better. After that, you start waking up more positive,” she says.
What that does is condition our minds to seek out joy. Our awareness changes. Over time, our attitudes lighten. We can become more joyful people.
“When we’re grateful, we open up our hearts, and our attitudes are much more positive,” she says. “We have to make conscious choices to surround ourselves with positive attitudes—to be people of gratitude. Those are choices. And if you make healthier choices, what we’re doing is really and truly living out the joyful Gospel message.”
Sister Anne also stresses that we’ve lost focus on the here and now—where life happens. Many of us are either locked in the past or too focused on the future.
“People don’t know how to live the moment,” she says. “We’re living yesterday. ‘Why did I say that?’ ‘If only I didn’t.’ ‘Maybe I should have.’ But we can’t change yesterday. We don’t have a lot of power with tomorrow either. We can hope for it, but there’s not one of us who are truly assured of it. All we have is now. And when we slow ourselves down to the now, we grab that energy.”
Even though the now can be difficult, God puts moments of joy in our lives each day. We just have to pull our blinders off and look for them.
“I think there are little things that God puts in our day that help us see that we can have a sense of humor. Little surprises,” she says.
Joy can also start with us, too. It can begin with something as effortless as a smile.
“A smile—that’s the beginning of laughter,” she says. “The benefit of smiling is that it lights up the frontal part of our brains, and that’s connected to memory. I always tell people if you walk into a room and forget why you’re there, stand still and smile. You’re going to remember because your brain is going to light up.”
Sister Anne says joy and laughter pay dividends. “It’s medicine for the soul and it’s contagious,” she says. “It benefits everybody, not only the person that you’re with, but you get the benefit, too. It’s the way we open up our spiritual worlds to each other—simply with that gift of laughter.”
Sister Anne’s Tips for a Joy-Filled Life
Staying positive and joyful are achievable goals, says Anne Bryan Smollin, CSJ. Here she offers four easy guidelines to consider.
1) Surround yourself with positive people. Negative thinking clogs the brain. Don’t hang around negativity.
2) A smile is the way we send a blessing to each other. If you smile at someone, even a stranger, he or she is going to smile back.
3) Look at people. We don’t keep eye contact anymore. What we do is we turn around and stare at the floor or the piece of paper in our hand or a smartphone.
4) Learn to laugh at yourself. Recognize that when you trip, it’s not the end of the world. Sometimes we give up so much energy that we don’t see how we might be able to keep that joy and laughter.