How to Feel More Joy Every Day
It's all about the body!
Posted May 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Joy can be cultivated from tiny moments.
- Experiencing positive emotions is a practice.
- The body is the key to expanding our capacity for joy.
Joy is one of the seven core emotions on the "Change Triangle." Joy, like all core emotions, has a particular feeling in the body, although that feeling varies from person to person. Often I ask my patients to slow down to scan their body for feelings of joy, even little "molecules" of joy otherwise obscured by the more attention-grabbing negative emotions.
When we find joy inside, we notice sensations like warmth, energy, and peace. It feels amazing to stay with and savor the physical sensations of joy. But it does take practice!
Researcher Barbara Frederickson, Ph.D., studies positive emotions like joy. She developed the "broaden-and-build theory." In short, her research suggests that promoting and sustaining joyful states is important nourishment for the brain.
The broaden-and-build theory explains that:
- The capacity to experience joy is ever-present. Your joy might be deeply buried to protect you from being disappointed or wounded, but it is still there.
- Joy has a special ability to broaden our mind's perspective, as opposed to constricting it, which happens during the negative emotional states of anxiety and depression. In other words, joy may have an exponentially positive effect on one's future thoughts and behaviors.
- Joy makes us want to play, expand our curiosity, and connect with others.
- Joy lessens the time spent in negative mood states and helps us physiologically recover from negative states more rapidly.
- Through deeply felt experiences of joy, people increase their creativity, knowledge, and resilience.
The bottom line: Joy increases our health and social capacity.
In Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), we "privilege the positive." Whereas many psychotherapists and psychotherapy methods focus on what is wrong with a person, AEDP focuses on what is right and potentially transformative. We affirm and draw out what is healthy in a person, using moments of expansion to jumpstart further transformation.
A clinical example
Carole, who came to me very depressed, experienced little joy in her life. In our sessions, I set out to become a "joy detective." I looked for any signs of joy: any upturned mouth indicating a muted smile, a split-second of light in her eyes, energy in her body, or any narrative where joy might be found.
One day, I cracked a joke. And there it was: a little laugh. Seeing her laugh made me laugh. I noticed and seized the moment right there and then:
"Carole, it makes me smile to see you laugh. Can we make space for this moment? What do you feel inside your body as you smile and laugh with me?" I asked.
"It's warm," she replied.
"Where do you notice the warmth in your body right now?" I asked, wanting to hold her in this feeling for as long as possible to take advantage of joy's positive effects.
"It's around the top of my stomach, I think."
"Can we just stay with that feeling of warmth on the top of your stomach for about 10 more seconds? There is no goal. Just notice the warmth... just stay with it...."
After about 10 seconds, I asked. "What's happening now?"
"It's spreading a bit," Carole said.
"Show me with your hands how it is spreading," I asked, knowing that each additional second she stayed with the joy in her body provided her more nourishment.
"Like this...." Her hands gestured from her stomach area upwards and outwards.
"What's it like to notice that?" I asked
"It feels good. But I am scared it will go away."
"Can you let that afraid part of you know that we hear it, and then can we ask that part that is scared to step back so we can enjoy the warmth a little longer?"
I noted the anxiety, which predictably arises at some point when people expand into new and positive states of being. That just lets me know Carole was nearing her edge—her maximum capacity for the moment. Soon, we would take a break and reflect on her new experience.
You can do this too! Here are 4 self-help techniques to build more joy:
- Look for little daily moments of joy to build on: petting a dog, watching the sunrise, noticing a flower or tree, eating a delicious meal, connecting with a friend or stranger, listening to a favorite song, or laughing during a funny moment from a book, television show, or movie. If you look for these micro-moments of joy, you will find them. When you do, acknowledge them as a moment of pleasure.
- Don't put pressure on yourself to hold onto joy, don't worry about joy's fleeting nature, and don't beat yourself up for not feeling more joy than you do. Just let the moment be what it is.
- Focus on how this moment of joy feels below the neck. Notice what sensations arise in your body. I routinely ask in a therapy session when someone shares a happy story, "What emotion goes with this story you are telling me?" When they report feelings of joy or happiness, I then ask, "What in your body lets you know that you are experiencing joy?" With a stance of curiosity and acceptance towards their inner world, I invite my patient to scan their body from head to toe and from toe to head to notice and describe the sensations.
- Enjoy the sensations and physical expansion that joy viscerally evokes. Use deep belly breathing to keep the joy flowing. (Holding the breath is a common way we stop emotions from flowing, and that can cause anxiety.) If you experience tension or anxiety, try imagining that your body grows bigger to accommodate all that you feel inside. Make sure your posture is upright and open to help make room for the full experience of joy.
Staying with the visceral experience of joy can bring up inhibitory emotions, like anxiety, shame, and guilt. Staying with the visceral experience of joy can also arouse parts of us that don't feel worthy of feeling good. Experiencing joy can simultaneously bring up sadness. In fact, the various feelings that come up when we feel joy will need tending and processing, too, especially if they block or prevent joy from flourishing inside. Those competing feelings always have roots in the past or in societal messages.
When we encounter obstacles, it helps to acknowledge them with a stance of acceptance, kindness, and compassion towards ourselves. And then get even more curious about your growing relationship to this nourishing core emotion—joy. Like dedicating time to building our physical strength, it is worth the effort to build a greater capacity for joy.
A+ for trying!
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Fredrickson B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367–1378. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2004.1512
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working The Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House