This is Your Brain on Joy - Blog

This is Your Brain on Joy

The most iconic television ad from my 1980s childhood begins with butter sizzling in an iron skillet. “This is drugs,” the narrator says. An egg is cracked and dropped into the frying pan. “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

The message was clear: “Drugs will fry your brain . . . so stay away from drugs!”

As a teenager, I was told repeatedly that drugs cause brain damage. Yet no one ever told me what would cause my brain to thrive. Drugs are bad for my brain. Could anyone tell me what is good for my brain?

I wouldn’t learn the answer to that question for another 30 years, when I came across the neuroscience found in the book Rare Leadership by Jim Wilder and Marcus Warner.

This was the first time I heard that the fuel God designed our brains to run on is joy. And joy is not merely a positive attitude or a choice we make. Rather,

Joy is a neurological response to the experience of being glad to be together.

Joy Changes Everything
Learning that relational joy is essential for a healthy brain (and thus, a healthy soul) was a “lightbulb moment” for me. I began to see the centrality of joy in Scripture.

  • Psalm 16:11 “. . . in your presence there is fullness of joy.”
    • David said that his relational connection to God filled him with joy.
  • Romans 14:17 “The Kingdom of God is . . . righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
    • Paul characterized the ethos of living in God’s Kingdom as living in right relationship with God and others, together with hearts (and minds) filled with joy and peace.
    • I was stunned to learn that modern neuroscience reveals the brain functions best on rhythms of joy and peace.
  • Nehemiah 8:10 “. . . the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
    • Literally, this is true! A person’s emotional resilience is directly tied to the “joy strength” built up in their right prefrontal cortex. UCLA neuroscience was discovering in the 1990s what Nehemiah knew by the Spirit 2,500 years earlier!

I also began to see how joy had radically affected my spiritual journey. I saw that as a college student I had been drawn to a weekly Bible study in a search for truth. Yet I could now see that the reason I kept coming back is because my Bible study leader, Doug, was always glad to see me! (Thanks, Doug!)

It was truth that drew me, but it was relational joy that made me feel like I belonged, and which kept me on the journey.

And I learned that if we don’t have enough genuine joy in our lives, we will seek out joy-substitutes. So many addictions begin as an attempt to medicate relational pain (the opposite of joy) and to fill the absence of relational joy with pleasure (pseudo-joy). The same part of our brain that lights up when we see a good friend will also light up with a hit of drugs, alcohol, sexual misbehavior, or chocolate ice cream. Your soul is placed in grave danger when joy-levels remain low for very long.

Joy is essential for life. You can’t live without it. Your brain will drive you to find joy somewhere. If you don’t experience joy in your relationship with God and others, you’ll wind up looking for “joy-substitutes” which will often lead to addiction, and which always lead to regret.

My TV Commercial
If I were to make a TV commercial for teenagers today, I think I’d show scenes of people glad to be together. There would be lots of smiles and laughter, eyes sparkling with gladness, as well as images of tender compassion and comfort for hurting people. I’d show people worshiping God together with lifted hands and beaming faces. I would like this next generation to know that joy is what they are truly seeking, and true joy is found in a growing relationship with God and God’s people.

My commercial would give them lots of visual examples of what this looks like. At the end of the commercial I would say, “This is your brain on joy. Any questions?”

Picture of Nik Harrang

Nik Harrang

Nik Harrang serves as the Director of Operations at Deeper Walk International. Nik received his M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He started college ministries on several campuses in Seattle, WA, and served as Associate Pastor at Every Nation Church, Seattle until 2017. Nik is passionate about helping people grow in emotional, relational, and spiritual health.

6 Comments

  • Thanks for sharing Nik. Sounds almost basic, but I agree we should not miss how powerful and transformative joy is! I have often lived in error like I have too many responsibilities and life is too serious to take the time to just enjoy being together or enjoy memories of joyful together times. I have come to see that joy is essential for my life and responsibilities, no matter how busy I am. The joy of being together brings real strength. Sign my brain up!

  • Wow! I really loved this article on joy!
    I especially loved your TV commercial. As I read and imagined what that would look like, I actually started to feel a sense of peace and joy which left me wanting to know more!
    Thank you for sharing this with us!

    • Hey Linda-
      Thanks for sharing your experience with us. We hope these blogs posts do JUST that! Blessings!

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