How to Cultivate Joy

Jim Burns

By Jim Burns

During a difficult season in my life, I asked a mentor of mine if we could have lunch. He had always given me such great advice and perspective. This time he listened, didn’t say much, and then wrote a few Bible verses on a napkin and handed it to me before we left the restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I love the wisdom of the Bible, but to be honest, I was looking for more.

I stuffed the napkin in my pocket, and that night my wife asked about our lunch. I told her I was a tad bit disappointed by his lack of advice. I told her that he had simply written a couple of Bible verses on a napkin. She asked what they were, and I had to admit I hadn’t bothered to look at them. So I pulled the napkin out of my pocket and read what he wrote: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).

Those verses ended up becoming part of a major life message for me and helped me through times of struggle and conflict and my cancer scare. I’m not exaggerating when I say that they changed my life, because they helped change my attitude. Let me explain.

As I investigated the Scripture passage my friend John wrote on the napkin and how it relates to my attitude, I wrote at the top of a page in my journal the word joy. Then I wrote, “My goal is joy!”

“Rejoice always.” Another more modern translation of that verse reads, “Be full of joy.” I then circled the word joy. I knew from past study that when a person has deep-rooted joy, it is something much more than happiness after eating a great meal or watching a wonderful movie. Joy comes from the inside, and it’s connected to the well-being of the soul. Part of my journey toward deeper joy is knowing it’s a choice and not usually based on circumstance or chance.

About that time, I was having dinner with my friend Henry Cloud. Over the years, Henry has been one of the leading voices on the subject of creating healthy relational boundaries and finding joy in the midst of difficult circumstances. At dinner that night, he gave me a great illustration about developing joy.

He said, “Yes, you can make joy a goal and choice for your life, but you can’t just will to have joy. You have to choose the practices and activities that enrich your life with joy, just like you would cultivate a garden.” Hmm, a lot like deciding to have serious fun and then implementing a plan to do so.

Here is another insight I learned around that time: circumstances are not as important to our joy as most of us would think. Two people can have a similar negative circumstance, and one of those people can rise above it and still have joy, while the other doesn’t. It’s more a matter of mindset than circumstance. I saw a poster recently in a hospital waiting room that read, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass ... it’s about learning to dance in the rain” (Vivian Greene).

Many years ago, a scientific researcher named Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote a book called The How of Happiness. In this book, she developed a simple “Pie Chart of Happiness.” The chart shows that 50 percent of happiness depends on genetics, 40 percent on intentional activities, and only 10 percent on life circumstances.

Whether or not this is accurate in your life, the pie chart reminds us that there are at least three major influences to develop deeper joy: genetics, circumstances, and activities. The research also reveals that our circumstances have the least to do with it. If only 10 percent of our joy or happiness comes from circumstances, and there is not much we can do about our genetics or biological set point (50 percent), then our focus needs to be on activities and choices we make that increase our happiness.

While there’s still the matter of deciding whether a brisk walk or another Twinkie will garner the results we seek, when you think about it, having such control over our attitudes is good news. Back to what Henry Cloud told me at dinner that night, that our joy mainly comes from our activities and life practices: this translates to our attitude.


Have Serious FunAdapted from Have Serious Fun: And 12 Other Principles to Make Each Day Count by Jim Burns. Click here to learn more about this book.

After hearing the words no one wants to hear—“you have cancer”—Jim Burns set out to articulate the most important principles for a life well lived and now shares them with you as a collection of essential truths for a healthy, balanced, and successful life.

    Don't wait any longer. Let these principles guide you into deeper joy, more purpose, and better connection—and start truly living today.

    Jim faced mortality with his cancer and was reminded that only a few things are important to make a life worthy. He has shared them here, and they are a gift.”
    Dr. Henry Cloud, psychologist; New York Times bestselling author of Boundaries

    Jim Burns helps show us how to live fully and right now, in a way that will bring joy and meaning, even in the midst of challenges. Highly recommended.”
    John Townsend, PhD, author, New York Times bestselling Boundaries; founder, Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling

    Jim Burns is the president of HomeWord, speaks to thousands of people around the world each year, and has more than two million resources in print in twenty languages. He is the author of Confident Parenting, Creating an Intimate Marriage, and Doing Life with Your Adult Children. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi; two sons-in-law, Steve and Matt; and three grandchildren, James, Charlotte, and Huxley. Learn more at


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