Can Self-Forgetfulness Make Us Happier?

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” —Philippians 2:4-7

"The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less." —Timothy Keller

On the first day of a long-awaited two-week vacation, I found out that a book I’d labored on intensely had been altered for the worse, and I had no recourse. It was the one and only time in thirty years of writing that the published book would be inferior to the manuscript I’d submitted. It was the low point in my professional life. I was disappointed not only by what had happened but also by how deeply it affected me. If you’ve ever been disappointed by your own disappointment, you understand. (“I should be bigger than this—how come I’m not?”)

We were at our friends’ house on Maui. Despite the beautiful surroundings, I stewed over this writing project, even though I realized I’d eventually gain perspective. (I did, but not until after the vacation; I just wanted to fast-forward to when I knew I’d feel better!) Meanwhile, I snorkeled for three hours a day. That was the only time when the cloud dramatically lifted. Floating and diving among the beautiful fish, turtles, eels, and sharks—and enjoying a magical hour and a half swimming with a monk seal I named Molly—I lost myself in these creatures and the God who made them. I forgot about myself, my shortcomings, others’ failings, and my disappointments.

I left my troubled self on the shore. As long as my face was underwater, I was free and happy. It was only when I got out of the water and came back to “Randy’s world” that my happiness vaporized.

Sometimes when times are tough, I have that same experience of losing myself during quiet times with God. Sometimes I have it when laughing with family and friends. Other times it’s when I’m riding a bike or listening to music or a great audio book. In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said of the humble person, “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” I’ve seen the truth of what Lewis and Tim Keller and others have discovered, experiencing my greatest happiness not simply when I think less of myself, but when I think of myself less. When I’m thinking most about Jesus and others, and least about me, I’m most fulfilled.

People who think a lot about themselves and their plans for wealth and success—e.g., writing a bestselling book and being mentioned in the same sentence with Hemingway—tend to be unhappy.

However, people who think a lot about Christ and His grace, the great doctrines of the faith, and how to love and serve others tend to be happy people. By redirecting attention from ourselves to God, we adopt a right perspective that brings happiness. Just as I revise my writing to make it better, I must revise my beliefs and thought habits in light of God’s Word. Happiness isn’t my exclusive goal, of course, but it’s certainly a welcome by-product.

Psalm 37:4 reads, “Delight yourself in the LORD.” Not “sit there and wait for the Lord to delight you.” It’s active, not passive. We aren’t spoon-fed His pleasures; we need to go to the banquet, reach out our hands, and eat that delicious cuisine. As surely as it’s our responsibility to put good food in our mouths, it’s our responsibility to move our thoughts toward God and be happy in Him!

We need to stop consuming our self-preoccupied thoughts and instead cultivate our appetite for God and what’s true about Him: “Taste and see that the LORD is good. How happy is the man who takes refuge in Him!” (Psalm 34:8, HCSB).

When I contemplate Christ—when I meditate on His unfathomable love and grace—I lose myself in Him. When He’s the center of my thinking, before I know it, I’m happy.

Tim Keller writes in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, “Don’t you want to be the kind of person who, when they see themselves in a mirror or reflected in a shop window, does not admire what they see but does not cringe either? . . . Wouldn’t you like to be the skater who wins the silver, and yet is thrilled about those three triple jumps that the gold medal winner did? To love it the way you love a sunrise? Just to love the fact that it was done? You are as happy that they did it as if you had done it yourself. . . . This is gospel-humility, blessed self-forgetfulness.”

As commendable as such humility is, we can never achieve it simply by willing it to appear. Otherwise, we’ll be thinking about ourselves and our valiant attempts to be humble. What we need is to be so gripped by Jesus and His grace, so lost in His love, that we truly forget about ourselves. Why would we want to think about ourselves, the lesser, when we can think about Him, the infinitely greater? This happens directly, when we worship and serve Him, and also indirectly, when we love and serve others for His glory.

Lord Jesus, this side of Heaven we’ll never completely forget about ourselves, but by your grace, help us more and more to turn our focus away from ourselves and toward you so we can experience the happiness of self-forgetfulness. Show us how we can better serve others, not just ourselves. Thank you for motivating and helping us to help others—for your gladness, as well as theirs and ours.

Excerpted from 60 Days of Happiness: Discover God's Promise of Relentless Joy.

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries