Our brains have a default emotional state – the state it resides in when other emotions are not temporarily overwhelming it. In the first 18 months of life, the default emotional state in our brains, which should be joy, is set to one of the 6 unpleasant emotions that the brain recognizes — sadness, fear, anger, shame, disgust, and hopeless despair. This was not a choice you made. It was set according to what was happening in your life during your infancy.
Here is the good news: we can reset our default emotional state to joy. This happens in our brains as a response to repeated exposure to a state of gratitude. Gratitude is the on-ramp for raising joy in our lives. The 30-Day Joy Exercise is a spiritual discipline that will benefit every Christian. It was created by Dr. Jim Wilder as a way to reset the brain’s default state. Dr. Wilder is a psychologist and theologian who incorporates brain science into Christian discipleship. Here is how it works:
· Think of a memory in your life for which you are grateful. It can be big (the birth of a child) or small (a beautiful sunset). It doesn’t matter, as long as you feel gratitude when you think about it.
· Give it a 2-3-word title (Dan and Dave, shining goldfinch, balloon soccer)
· In a quiet place, go back into this memory and relive it for a minute, like you are back in it.
o What did you feel in your body? – maybe “peace” or “lightness” (It doesn’t matter what you feel as long as you feel something in your body)
o What might God be communicating to you through the memory and the peace you feel? God is with me and likes to share his beauty with me.
1. Start compiling a list of grateful memories as described in Phase 1. Each memory has 2 characteristics: 1) You feel gratitude in your body, and 2) You feel a connection with God in the memory. Eventually, you want a list of at least 10 grateful memories.
2. Once a day, spend 5 minutes residing in gratitude using your list of grateful memories. It is mostly non-verbal. You are feeling a connection with God in your body as you relive memories of gratitude.
Note: Spending 5 minutes reliving memories without being distracted is difficult if you have never done it before. It will take you a while to be able to sustain the full 5 minutes without daydreaming or going off on tangents. Give yourself grace. You may be exercising a muscle in your heart that hasn’t been used much. Use your list of memories during the 5 minutes. Some days a single memory will sustain you for 5 minutes. More commonly, you will need 3-5 memories to fill 5 minutes. When the gratitude of one memory starts to fade, go to another one on the list.
Once you can consistently sustain a solid 5-minute state of gratitude, you are ready to start the 30-Day Joy Exercise.
Phase 2 – The 30-day Joy Exercise
1. Spend 5 minutes of gratitude 3x a day. Do it the first thing in the morning, at mid-day, and the last thing you do at night before going to bed. Do this for 30 days. Consistency is key.
2. Sometime during the 30-days, your brain will respond to this repeated exposure to gratitude. It will reset your default emotional state to joy. You will likely feel different when you wake up, and you will notice when you slip out of joy as you live your life. Not feeling joy will feel abnormal to you. You will want to return to joy as soon as possible.