Getting to Know Courtney Ellis, Author of Happy Now
1. What inspired you to write Happy Now?
Happy Now arose out of a pain point in my life. For years and years my husband and I were on this achievement treadmill—graduate school, starting careers, having babies. When we finally reached a place of stability—wonderful jobs at a church we love, three kids, the end of all our graduate studies—we felt this weird emptiness.
Then I faced a health scare where we had a few weeks of real concern that I might end up needing surgery and months of recovery and physical therapy. When the doctor gave me the good news that I wasn’t in the dire straits we’d feared, I felt this quick moment of relief and joy, followed immediately by, “Well… then what now?”
Some strange part of me was gearing up to fight for my physical recovery, and when it turned the health problem was a blip and not a disaster, I wasn’t sure what to do. It was then I realized I wasn’t happy and hadn’t been for some time.
I began searching the Scriptures to learn what God says about joy. Joy is all over the Bible, but often the how isn’t made plain by the text. Trying harder is rarely a Gospel answer—especially when it comes to happiness! So I started to marry my studies of Scripture with studies in everything from psychology and theology to sociology and anthropology, discovering all the ways God has created us to experience joy and connection.
Happiness isn’t something we have to will ourselves into! Instead, there is this beautiful pathway in our brain that absolutely lights up when we engage in the practice of playfulness.
That’s where Happy Now began. It’s a story of rediscovering happiness through God’s gifts of play. And play isn’t just sports or music or games. We can do almost anything in our lives playfully, from worshiping God to connecting with our families to doing the dishes after a meal.
The beauty is that when we engage in play, the play does all the work!
2. What was your favorite chapter to write?
My editor really pushed me to discover my own playfulness style. In an earlier draft, I talked a great deal about how other people played, but I never really found the ways I had the most fun. With her encouragement, I took some time to really dig deeply into the ways I love to play best—and the answer surprised me!
3. What was the most challenging chapter to write?
The most challenging chapter was the one entitled “Connect.” My husband and I have three young children—we are in that season of life where we’re often physically exhausted from fragmented sleep and all of the lifting and carrying and bending and wiping we do in a day.
Yet as I wrote this chapter and did all the research to help it come together, I began to realize all the ways my children were looking to me for connection during the day—attempts at play, at that spark of joy—that I simply barreled past in the rush and hurry of readying them for school, keeping a home going, and squeezing in just one more work email.
God really convicted me during the writing process that some of my struggle to find happiness was due to the speed and pace of my life. Opportunities to connect were all around me, but I told myself I didn’t have the time to give. The truth was, I often did, but I had to relearn a slower, more tender way of being, both in my relationship with God and in every other relationship in my life.
Children are beautiful teachers when it comes to playfulness. I’m so grateful!
4. In what ways do you seek out playfulness in your own life?
The beautiful thing about playfulness is that we don’t often have to seek it out! If our eyes are open to its magic, we will find invitations to play nearly everywhere. That’s often the first and easiest step—being open to these invitations when we find them.
We may not always be able to give a full evening to a board game, but we can nearly always give a few moments to a sunset or a child or a hug. Even these acts of “micro-play” can give us a wonderful lift in our spirits.
Beyond that, my practice of keeping a Sabbath day of rest is the most crucial part of my playfulness journey. If I’m not rested, it is difficult to play well. But out of this Sabbath rest with the Lord, joy begins to overflow.
Eugene Peterson once called the Sabbath a day for “praying and playing,” and I’ve found this to be so deeply true. Where Jesus is, there is joy. But in our hustle and rush we can often run right past this quiet delight.
5. When you talk about “hustle culture” [pg. 38], how do you recognize when you’re starting to live by this culture? How do you prevent yourself from following this culture?
Sabbath is key. When we worship and rest, God helps us keep our deeper, truer desires in mind. For example, I might really want to send this email right now, but if I have a three-year-old leaning against my knee asking me to read a book, my deeper desire is that she would feel seen and loved. The email can nearly always wait.
Early on in my career as an author, my husband Daryl asked me a question I think about nearly daily. He asked, “What do you want?” There are never-ending treadmills of platform-building and social media engagement and traveling for speaking engagements that can seem necessary to write and publish. His question helped me frame my writing craft not as a numbers game but as one of faithfulness and depth and obedience to God.
That is what I want—to become a better writer, year by year, and one who is ever more in tune with the Holy Spirit. With this in mind, it becomes infinitely easier to log off social media for one day of the week, or to say no to a speaking engagement that would conflict with my ministry at church or our family life.
6. What is one major misconception about the Sabbath, that you think prevents people from taking one?
I’ll give you two! The first major misconception is that the Sabbath is optional. It’s one of the only ten commandments we feel fine ignoring. But the fact is, God commands it for our good and the good of the world.
The second is that there is one right way to practice the Sabbath. There isn’t! Many factors complicate our lives and schedules, so it’s okay to be creative in how you keep the Sabbath. If you have a work schedule that doesn’t allow a Sunday sabbath (my husband and I both work in ministry – Sunday is a work day!), then take another day for that holy rest and play.
If you have young children or are giving care to an aging relative, you may have to be creative in how you engage in that rest. Perhaps it’s a cheap takeout pizza instead of cooking dinner, or you might trade childcare hours with a neighbor. My husband and I often split parts of the day so we can have a few hours to pray and play alone before coming back together as a family.
The rhythms of what is restful will change season to season. You may just need actual physical rest and sleep through much of your Sabbath. I believe God delights in that, too! Or you may feel stir-crazy and need to take a strenuous hike or play racquetball or work on a craft project.
The key is to unplug from the daily grind and to engage in restful worship and worshipful rest.
7. What are some ways someone who is new to the idea of ‘Sabbath’ can start observing the Sabbath?
Set aside a day (or a portion of a day, if that’s what you can manage to start – no shame!).
Then, prepare for the day by thinking through what you need to engage in restful worship. Get ready to set aside your digital devices (it can be helpful to set an away message on your phone or email). I struggle to rest if our kitchen is filled with dishes, so part of my Sabbath prep is making sure our sink and counters are cleared the night before.
My husband Daryl usually needs a project to do with his hands—tinkering with a ceiling fan or digging in the garden—so he tries to have supplies on hand for that. Some people like to light a candle or make sure their kids’ clothes are laid out for church so there isn’t a morning scramble.
Finally, let yourself be loved by God through worship, rest, and play. It isn’t uncommon to experience what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “Sabbath sickness,” at first. You might feel a bit out of sorts because all the feelings you’ve been holding at bay in your busy week come crashing down. With a little time and patience, those feelings almost always pass.
If you can make worship part of your Sabbath, that’s wonderful. If worship isn’t available, I encourage folks to find a spiritual practice to engage in, whether that’s devotional reading, Bible study, prayer walking, listening prayer, or another way they connect with God.
The other thing we do in our house is begin our Sabbath with donuts. That’s definitely not in the Bible, but it has gone a long way towards getting our children excited and on board!
8. How have you seen your family’s weekly Sabbath benefit the whole family?
Our children are even bigger champions for Sabbath practices than we are. They long for it and they delight in it. After a week of running off to school and errands and appointments and activities, the knowledge that the morning will begin with play and without hurry is an absolute delight for them.
For Daryl and I as parents, it helps us to see our children again. We spend so much time together, yet when they’re buckled into car seats and we’re zooming down the highway, we don’t often have the chance to pause and look into each other’s eyes, to hear one another’s stories, to slow down long enough to really connect.
Stanley Hauwerwas calls kindness “the touch that otherwise wouldn’t be there,” and Sabbath rest really helps us to find Christ’s kindness within our family again.
9. How does fear hinder our pursuit of playfulness?
Fear can be a huge barrier to both playfulness and happiness, particularly the fear of what other people will think. One of the hurdles for adults in play is getting over that worry about looking silly or not being good at something.
Who says we have to be good at something to try it or enjoy it? I’m terrible at basketball, but I don’t need to go to the Olympics! I can still play with my sons at the neighborhood hoop, and do you know what? We have fun.
I’m just happy these little guys still want to play with their mom!
Once we realize it isn’t a complete disaster if we miss the hoop or paint a terrible painting or use too much oregano while cooking playfully, we can let go and have all sorts of fun. Failure is very rarely fatal, and that is one of the lessons of Happy Now, too. There’s a whole chapter—“Fail Regularly”—dedicated to it!
10. Have you grown in playfulness since writing this book?
Absolutely. Just the other night Daryl and I curled up on the couch after a very full week and I said, “Do you know what I need to do now? Something completely useless.” Playfulness frees us from always having to produce or earn or improve.
Useless things can be so restorative because we engage in them just for the joy. That night Daryl watched a football game and I did a jigsaw puzzle and it absolutely fed our souls.
Writing the book also helped me realize the toll it can take to monetize our joy. Often folks have a “side hustle” or some project that brings in a bit of extra income. This can sometimes be great. If you love to bake cookies and the neighbors want to buy them, and that pays for your car’s new radiator, that’s awesome!
The trouble comes when we feel like all our joy needs to be driven toward a goal. Suddenly baking those cookies might not be fun anymore because you have to bake them.
Writing used to be my “pure joy” activity. I engaged in it when I wanted to and how I wanted to, and I could set it down for months on end if I chose. But now with deadlines, sometimes the writing can feel like a chore.
So it isn’t my main playfulness activity anymore. I still love to write, but it’s become a profession as well as a passion.
I was grateful to discover a few new personal avenues for playfulness in writing this book. I’ve taken up birding as a hobby, which is such a blast because birds are almost everywhere and it only takes a moment or two to enjoy one. I also encourage myself to read for pleasure and not just for research. And now I’m much more attuned to my children’s play invitations.
Rather than telling them I’ll join them later, I’m much more willing to drop what I’m doing and give them ten dedicated minutes knowing that they will offer an outsized burst of joy to us both.
11. What do you hope is people’s biggest takeaway from this book?
My biggest hope is that people would receive this book as permission to play again. Children are play experts, but somewhere along the way we lose our playfulness. Jesus never did—he was a master of playfulness, from his brilliant storytelling to his leisurely meals with those he loved.
When we accept the invitation of God to engage in playfulness, it begins to lift our loads and renew our spirits in ways that flow out into every avenue of our lives. Playfulness is a real game changer, and the beauty is that play does all the work!
12. What are you planning to write about next?
My next book focuses on the spiritual practice of being all in, right where we are. It’s a book about being present to the present in the present. My hope is that it’s a wonderful gift to my readers. (Pun intended!)
Happy Now: Let Playfulness Lift Your Load and Renew Your Spirit is a rollicking, investigative, and thoughtful invitation to open ourselves to the joy and freedom of play all over again. It is designed to invite readers to let go of their most serious selves, grant them permission to engage in curiosity and wonder of all kinds, and delight in the release of its transformative effects: creativity, innovation, delight, rest, and—above all—a more trusting relationship with Jesus Christ.