By Justin Rossow
I have been reading a book lately by Chris M. Coursey called The Joy Switch: How Your Brain’s Secret Circuit Affects Your Relationships—and How You Can Activate It. Yes, it’s about as cheesy as it sounds. BUT the author is actually taking relatively recent brain science and dumbing it down so we can understand it and apply it to our lives of faith. Speaking neuroscience to lay people ends up sounding kind of cheesy sometimes; it’s an occupational hazard.
So cheese notwithstanding, I’ve found some helpful stuff in this book. One of the suggested activities, based on brain science, has to do with remembering things that make you smile. You could paraphrase the basics in three steps:
First, you Remember. Remember something that makes you smile. It could be a person, a place, an activity, or even a certain food. This time of year, I remember the dozens of different kinds of Christmas cookies my grandma used to bake, from cornflakes Christmas wreaths, to chocolate-covered chow mein bird’s nests, to pastel-colored marshmallow stained glass windows rolled in chopped pecans. Remembering grandma and her glorious display of cookies makes me smile.
Second, you Feel. You feel the feelings the memory brings. You allow yourself to experience again that experience that brought you joy. Coursey suggests you should think about where you remember that experience in your body as a way of recalling the experience more fully. For me, I hold the memory of grandma’s mountains of cookies in my eyes (which always opened wide at the display) and in my lips, teeth, and tongue (not only because of the wonderful taste, but because of all the amazing textures of crunchy, gooey, melty, or powdery that poked or oozed or coated the roof of my mouth).
Remembering something that makes you smile and recalling that experience in your body goes a long way to helping you feel appreciation. But that sense of gratefulness is taken to another level when you include step 3: you Share. Share a simple story about that memory with another person. Talk about why it makes you smile and where it lives in your body, and your brain and body begin to respond as if you were actually living out that joyful moment right now.
The appreciation you feel for that moment of joy, in brain science terms, increases neuronal density in the ventromedial and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. In less technical (but more cheesy) terms, the relationship circuit in your brain turns on. You are more open to other people and what is going on in their lives right now. You are more emotionally and intellectually available, more likely to be happy, and a lot easier to get along with.
When you feel appreciation and joy, you begin to look for more things that make you feel appreciation and joy. It’s an upward spiral that gets easier with practice. The more you remember, feel, and share something that makes you smile, the easier it is for you to notice, experience, and remember something that makes you smile.
I think following Jesus is like that.
The more you joyfully remember something Jesus did in your life that makes you smile, the more often you share simple experiences of Jesus in your regular life, the easier it is for you to notice, experience, and remember what Jesus is doing in you or around you.
Of course, not everything is easy or light in your experience of faith. But seeing and remembering Jesus active even in the midst of your grief, or your struggle, or your sin can still be a memory that brings a sense of appreciation, and gratitude, and even joy.
So this Christmas, I’ll be remembering grandma’s homemade, melt-in-your-mouth fudge squares and her almond crescents that always left a trail of white powdered sugar down the front of your sweater.
But I’ll also be remembering the time Jesus showed up in a difficult conversation with my daughter and turned it into prayer; the time the Spirit invited and motivated me to travel to a strange place where strange people were eating strange foods (it was across the street) and simply be a person of peace in the midst of a foreign birthday party; or the time God’s Word reminded me clearly and specifically how much my Heavenly Father loves me, and delights in me, and rejoices over me with singing.
Those moments put a smile on my face and help me find a sense of appreciation for what Jesus has been doing in my life. But remembering, and feeling, and sharing those moments also teaches me to look for more of the same: times when Jesus shows up in my ordinary life in faithful and gracious ways.
So this Christmas, I invite you to practice a little brain science with a friend or family member. Remember something that makes you smile. Feel those feeling again and remember where that experience lives in your body’s memory. Then share that experience with someone else. We follow Jesus better when we follow him together.