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The Hidden Power of Joy

Feeling blue? A jolt of joy can help turn things around.

Key points

  • Depression is skyrocketing around the world due to isolation, financial concerns, and other tensions.
  • Gratitude is the cousin of joy. Focusing on what we do have makes a difference.
  • Joy is not found in the material world. It is a mindset.

Let’s be real. How can anyone even entertain the notion of joy in such a tumultuous time in human history? Geopolitical tensions, social media trash-mouthing, global inflation, and post-pandemic trauma have us all a wee bit on edge, to say the least. And while the drama of relentless incendiary political obfuscation splashes across our screens, we seem to have forgotten to pay attention to the quiet, less-racy aspects of life.

But those very still moments in which we feel present and alive are what make life worth living. It allows our true essence to surface, something we may have neglected in the wake of so much distraction. Taking a step back to excavate our innate sense of joy is a worthwhile pursuit. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut Jr., it is the small things that make life great.

Soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and stress have led to a new kind of pandemic: paralysis, paranoia, dark thoughts, and mental illness. According to a 2022 Statista Global Consumer Survey, 43.8 percent of Americans surveyed reported having experienced psychological problems in the past 12 months compared to 45.5 percent and 33.2 percent in the United Kingdom and Germany, respectively. In another survey in April 2022, 40 percent of Shanghai residents in China reported being at risk for depression as another lockdown loomed. Global mental health has been put to the test in unprecedented ways. In light of these figures, what can we do to offset this trend?

Joy, so it seems, is a topic worth exploring—if not as an antidote, at least as one step toward figuring out what might alleviate our collective strain. In an informal survey I recently conducted, I asked a wide variety of people what brings them joy. The response was overwhelming, as if they had just been waiting to share what makes their hearts swell. Of the more than 100 people who responded, every single one of them stated it was the simple things in life. In essence, the responses fell into two categories: connection and self-expression. Whether it was making a difference in someone’s life, engaging in athletic activities to boost endorphins in the bloodstream, watching a child discover new things, or being creative by pursuing a hobby, the human ability to experience and share joy is unassailable.

What brings us joy? The origins and levels of joy differ for everyone, but we all share an innate capacity for it. It can be amplified by examining not just what makes us happy but also what makes our entire being thrum with delight. Not surprisingly, the origins of joy have nothing to do with materialism or status and everything to do with our state of mind.

Adopting a New Mindset

Gratitude is a cousin of joy. As we approach the season of thanks in North America, it serves as a reminder to engage in a gratitude practice. Making it a daily habit to list the things for which we are grateful can help us adopt a new mindset that focuses on what we have versus what we do not.

Lynn Julian, a 2013 Boston Marathon bombing survivor who sustained multiple severe injuries that landed her in a wheelchair before learning to walk again, knew the only way she could bounce back was to become a patient advocate herself. “Helping others to help themselves brings me joy. There is no greater joy than gratitude.“

Bracha Goetz, a Harvard-educated children’s book author, embraces gratitude while focusing on the virtues of other people. Her teachings are based on a "Journey with Joy" that includes natural pleasures, love, meaning, creativity, and transcendence. With more than 40 books to her name, she clearly finds joy in creative pursuits as well.

Being Creative

SEO strategist at Forbes by day, grill enthusiast and weekend warrior the rest of the time, Shawn Hill has found joy by grabbing his spatula and flipping steaks in his backyard with friends. Connection and creativity go hand in hand.

Andy Fraser reaches for his guitar, which is both a pleasurable pastime and his chosen career. It defines his life’s purpose. Music transports him to his happy place, something he can count on every time. For him, music helps him connect more deeply with himself.

Making a Difference

Sarah Rogers, a long-time speech therapist in Central Virginia, finds joy in making an impact on a person’s speech development. Watching a child’s eyes light up when he or she utters that first word correctly makes her heart sing. The pandemic, she says, has sent shockwaves through early childhood development, leaving many far behind the communication milestones they need to reach to function in society. Making a difference brings her joy every day.

Connecting With Others

In one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, the Harvard Study of Adult Development followed a group of people for 80 years to determine what makes for a healthy life. While genes play a certain role, having a sense of community was by far the most influential aspect of leading a joyful life. We need each other for sustainable joy to emerge. When the going gets tough, relying on those closest to us can catch us before we fall.

The Link Between Happiness and Decision-Making

Apparently being happy and decisive go hand in hand. According to one study, those who decide things rather quickly rather than ruminating to make sure they make the “right” decision tend to be happier. The so-called “satisficers” are the types who look at a menu and decide for the first option that appeals to them while the “maximizers” tend to deliberate for a long time to ensure they make the most optimal choice. Their level of joy is minimized by feelings of regret and fear that they may not make the best decision. Satisficers, on the other hand, have a more casual attitude. This kind of mindset can be shifted, but it does take effort to release these fears and embrace a more joyful approach to decision-making.

5 Ways to Have More Joy Right Now

  1. Recognize you have a choice. Joie de vivre, gioia, Freude, joy! Every culture has a concept of what it is. It is a universal state that anyone can have access to. It starts with knowing you have a choice to tap into that wellspring at any time. Even as the world seems to be spinning out of control, you have permission to feel joy. You really do.
  2. Nurture your inner joy. Human beings are inherently born with a sense of joy, but it sometimes gets lost along the way. Get reacquainted with that innate spirit in case you have forgotten where it resides by doing one thing that brings you joy every day.
  3. Remember to breathe. Babies engage in belly breathing all the time. Practice doing a few breaths from your physical center. It will provide you with a sense of calm from which you can tap into your inner joy.
  4. Engage in simple pleasures. It can be trying out a new recipe, visiting your best friend after work, petting a neighborhood dog, or allowing yourself a moment just to be.
  5. Slow down. My research shows that slow is faster and fast is merely exhausting. Joy is the best decelerator in town while frenzy can have the opposite effect.

Joy is an important component in maintaining mental health. When we actively tap into the joy within, we feel fulfilled, even if just for a moment. Building those moments into our day can bring a sustained sense of calm that the world needs now more than ever. As mindfulness trainer Joy Rains (yes, that is her real name!) told me, “I try to weave mindful pauses into the busyness of my life as much as possible, but sometimes I just forget.” That is the power of slow at its best.

Let us remind each other of the influence that life’s joyful moments can bring. Shifting our focus on joy can transform the world’s chaos into calm, moment by moment, helping us make better decisions and creating environments in which we all can thrive. It starts with each one of us. In fact, it ends with us, too.

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