Candace Payne captured hearts around the world last year when a Facebook Live video of her trying on a Chewbacca mask in a parking lot went viral.
In the video -- seen by over 170 million people -- the wife and mother-of-two laughs infectiously as she wears the Star Wars mask, earning her the nickname "Chewbacca Mom." According to Forbes, the video became so popular that the mask sold out from every online retailer.
Watching Payne's uninhibited joy and laughter, one would never guess she once struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.
"When I was in college, I compared my worth, my value, anything and everything, to those around me," she told The Gospel Herald in an exclusive interview. "When those thoughts happen, they spiral out of control and you feel under the weight of them over anything else. Comparison had such a grip on me that it led me to diet pills, to self-harming, and to having suicidal thoughts."
It wasn't until a college roommate caught her self-harming that her life took a drastic turn.
"The greatest discovery I made about joy was the way my roommate loved me," she shared. "She didn't give me advice, she didn't scold. I would cry out of shame and embarrassment, and she'd walk with me and hold my arm when I needed it. It reminded me that joy, sometimes her only job is to bring us comfort, to keep her mouth shut. I really believe that some people need to know it is possible to experience joy even in their worst thoughts."
Payne shares her incredible story of perseverance and faith in her new book Laugh It Up: Embrace Freedom & Experience Defiant Joy (Zondervan/HarperCollins). She offers strategies for maintaining freedom in the midst of life's challenges and the secret to unshakable joy that no circumstance can take away.
A worship leader and stay-at-home mom, Payne never expected to become an overnight sensation.
"It was bananas," she laughed. "It took me on a wild adventure. It's a video of just me laughing, so I never expected the impact it's had. But, it's been a catalyst. I've had so many people ask me, 'How do you stay positive and find joy when you don't find it around you? So, I decided to answer those questions with this book. It seemed like a natural fit."
Joy and happiness, Payne is quick to clarify, are two different things
"Joy is eternal, it's not something that I call those 'itty bittys,'" she explained. "Those are happiness, and happiness are things that happen to us, they're things that are able to gratify that urge for joy, but they don't satisfy and they don't 'sustain. Joy is eternal."
The source of her joy, she said, is simple: "You can't have true, lasting joy outside of the Holy Spirit," she asserted. "Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and there's no more clarity than that. For me, the hope of joy comes from my faith, my relationship with God, the fact that He's the one that gives it and created it."
One strategy she offers in her book is the idea of practicing "defiant joy," what she defines as "going against the grain of what should be our normal response."
"Nobody is immune from hareatbache or suffering or regret and depression," she said. "If you're alive, you'll have those things. When life hits you, defiant joy stands up and fight backs and refuses to let negative circumstances define her. Defiant joy finds her identity, her worth, in Christ."
To acquire this kind of joy, it's important to put into practice Romans 12:2 - "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind," Payne advised.
"Your biggest battle is inside of your head, especially for joy," she said. "You say things to yourself that you wouldn't say to your worst enemy, and this has to shift and change. There are so many things that God says about us in the Word, and repeating those words over yourself is a bullet for the enemy. You've got to shoot that gun. When you begin to think differently, neurologically, you're making new tracks in your brain that are moving away from negative habits."
Through her unexpected platform, Payne hopes to provide hope to those struggling to find joy in turbulent times -- and draw attention to the power of social media.
"I would encourage people today to be cautious with their words," she said. "Today, we are painting ourselves in a corner with the way we respond to tragedy. If you're not offering hope, encouragement, or a solution with what you're about to post, don't post it. We have a God who says He is love, peace, and joy. If your post is not reflective of that, I'd say be careful in how you respond."
She added, "As for what you take in, commit yourself to the same thing. Be careful what you read. Not everything is going to be encouraging and hopeful, or full of light and positivity. You can choose to join the 'negative Nancy' party, or you can choose to say, 'Alright, I believe that we may be living in the worst day, but it's not our last.'"