Last Friday, on my weekly mindful walk, we talked about Joy. The day was just perfect: a beautiful blue sky with fluffy clouds, the gentle sunlight reflecting on the fresh white snow, the cold air on our cheeks, the after-storm stillness surrounding us, and the crunch of the snow under our feet. As we were sharing between participants childhood memories on the theme of Joy, we heard in the distance kids screaming joyfully and then could see them having fun sliding on the snow hill at the park. Just being there, available and receptive, contemplating what life had to offer that morning was a pure experience of Joy for me.
We are living in challenging times, to say the least, and it is easy to feel down, anxious, overwhelmed, and ignore the Joy that surrounds us waiting for better times. We can all relate to the feeling of wanting to reach for a quick fix, something that will make us feel better even for just a moment (think of this piece of chocolate or this glass of wine!). On a larger scale, we often based our decisions on the level of Joy we think those things will procure us (buying a bigger house, going on vacation, changing work, …). We think that our happiness depends on what’s happening outside of us. Somehow, growing up, we have given up our responsibility toward our happiness to the profit of external factors. But we all have experienced that reaching for external ways to comfort ourselves doesn’t last long and that counting on that puts us in a place of wanting more, more, and more.
If we want to boost our Joy over the long term, research in neuroscience shows us that we need to cultivate and create more Joy in our lives and around us. Joy is something we can activate. It is very good news!! It gives us back our power and releases us from the passive hope and waiting that perhaps someday, we will feel better.
But what is Joy anyway?
Before explaining the science behind it, let’s start by defining what really Joy is about. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines Joy as “a feeling of extreme gladness, delight, or exaltation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.” The Association also divided Joy into two different categories: active and passive Joy.
Passive joy is defined as a deep sense of contentment, appreciating things just as they are. For example, silently sitting on a bench in a park and contemplating the landscape around us can provide this sense of contentment and is considered to be passive Joy. On the other hand, active Joy implies the desire to connect with others and to share our experience of Joy with them. For example, coming back from an amazing trip, we want to share our experience with our friends because we want them to feel the same enchantment and rapture that we did.
Research shows that Joy and happiness induce different reactions in our bodies. Joy activates our parasympathetic nervous system, known as the “rest & digest” response. This part of our nervous system is responsible, among other things, for activating peace and calm in our body and mind. On the other hand, happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with excitement, energy, and activity.
So, Joy is different from happiness. Joy is a more meaningful type of happiness. It is a more long-lasting sentiment and it supports our general quality of life. Whether we are experiencing passive or active Joy, according to the APA, both forms contribute to increasing our energy level and improving our self-esteem and our self-confidence.
For me, the main difference between Joy and happiness is inclusivity. Because Joy is coming from a deep sense of contentment and acceptance, it can arise even when we experience so-called negative emotions, such as grief or pain. If we cultivate and nurture it, Joy can be present in our heart even in the midst of suffering.
How to cultivate Joy
There are many ways to cultivate and express Joy in our daily life and it is up to us to experiment with them and find what suits us best. Here are some examples of the more common and easy ways to activate Joy in our life.
Joyful environment: Having an environment pleasing to the senses can bring more Joy into our life.
· Opening the curtains to let the light in
· Choosing vibrant colors
· Playing with harmony, symmetry and contrast
Mindfulness and somatic practices: Pausing to appreciate what is available for us whether it be our environment, our bodily sensations, or our experiences can help us get better and better at cultivating Joy on a daily basis.
· Sitting or walking meditation
· Qigong or Taichi
Relationships: We are wired to connect with others! The quality of our connections is a sure predictable factor in our physical and mental health.
· Surrounding ourselves with people (or other living beings!) that bring Joy into our lives and support our own Joy
· Sharing our Joy with friends
· Calling a friend or sending a message that makes him/her smile
· Organizing a surprise party for a loved one
Curiosity & Creativity: Activating our inner child’s mind and heart brings lightness and brings us back to that cherished time of our lives.
· Learning a new thing
· Doing arts & crafts projects
· Playing, playing, playing
Kindness: Science shows that when we do something kind for another person (even a stranger) or for the world, we experience Joy. That is because we are fundamentally made for goodness.
· Holding a door for someone
· Bringing a sweet treat to our neighbor
· Yielding to another car
Wonder and Gratitude: Many studies have been done on gratitude and all concluded that cultivating a sense of awe and gratitude makes us feel more joyful.
· Journaling about what we are grateful about
· Telling someone we are grateful
· Intentionally focusing on positive instead of negative things
· Going into Nature
· Plant a tree and watch it grows
Joy is all around us! And it is FREE. Isn’t amazing? We have at hand this capacity to create for ourselves, but also for those around us this joyful life where we can experience a deep sense of well-being and serenity. The examples above are all adaptable and renewable practices. And they are only a small sample of all that it is possible to create and cultivate joy on a daily basis. Try it, play with it, and have fun!