Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Does Joy Light Up Your Life?

Ask yourself five questions to expand the presence of joy in your moments.

Key points

  • Imagery exercises can help a people identify moments when they have felt joy.
  • Theories of Sylvan Tomkins and his colleagues help contextualize the affect continuum of enjoyment; joy as a response to reductions of arousal.
  • Using an analytic perspective, Ingrid Lee suggests to add joy to life and home by exploring ten components of joy.
Source: JillWellington/Pixabay

Think of three times you felt pure joy. Pick one.

  • Where were you? Can you imagine looking at the context, hearing any sounds, smelling any odors, touching any textures, recalling tastes or temperatures?
  • What else was happening in your body?
  • Scan it for your biological systems.
  • Can you identify activity in your heart, brain, muscles, stomach, or skin? Breathe.
  • What words can you find to describe how the experience feels?
  • Did you have any impulses to act while you were experiencing joy?
  • Did you want to move toward or away from or against anything?
  • Did you feel any desire to expand or contract your experience?
  • Were you with any other people or animals?
  • Did they react to you during your moments of joy?

Remember, any experience can simultaneously be understood from at least seven perspectives.

Wanting to review the nature of joy, I returned to my favorite theorist on consciousness, Sylvan Tomkins. He identified nine hard-wired affects as part of "the biological system that underlies emotion…the innate, biological response to the increasing, decreasing or persistent intensity of neural firing…." Affects lead to feelings which, when labeled, become emotions that then form repetitive "scripts" destined to repeat in patterns that we then call "personality."

Source: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

According to Tomkins, the affect continuum of enjoyment to joy is "triggered by a decrease in neural firing". It contrasts with the other positive affect, interest-excitement, which occurs when neural firing increases in response to optimal levels of novelty, complexity, and duration of information inside a person or their environment. The joy affect is also exquisitely sensitive to our relationships and culture, amplified when mirrored by another person's reaction or the surrounding culture. With repetition, such sharing "creates a sense that there is a domain of the familiar, trustworthy and good." (These quotations are from the Tomkins Institute website.)

When joy is interrupted before it can naturally evolve to a neutral state, negative experiences can emerge. Unconscious expectations thus formed can lead us to avoid rather than pursue experiences, denying attractions, desires, delight. I hope to explore these disruptions in a future post.

David Griff, with permission
Jump for Joy
Source: David Griff, with permission

For today, here are some personal memories of uninterrupted joy. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and good feelings flood into my body when I remember: the skin of my awakening husband as I roll over and into his arms; delight when people read and find an essay I have published relatable or inspiring; sharing a riverside lunch with friends along with stories and views; doing yoga online with my favorite teacher; gazing in wonder at wildlife and vegetation that differ each the day; sharing a cup of tea and conversation with my grown daughter; watching a grandchild play high school volleyball; creating a delicious dinner dish that surprises us; following stories of redemptions and relationships on Ted Lasso; staring at stars on a clear night far from city lights; contemplating my first plane trip after 17 months of pandemic abstinence.

These feel like ordinary miracles. They fill me with gratitude, an open heart ready to receive, appreciation for the gifts of life, beauty, creativity, courage, and faith.

In these examples, active ingredients might include a familiar sensory delight associated with rituals and love (sensation); a desire to have something of value to give to others, including those I have never personally met (meaning); connecting with others (sharing); allowing my body and mind to stretch as they pay full attention to the world as it is in the moment (presence), and anticipation of repeating a context or activity associated with delight (hope and trust).

Recently I came across a new way to think about joy when I stumbled upon Ingrid Petell Lee's website, The Aesthetics of Joy. Lee, a designer by training and gifts, examines the psychological impact of "home" and ways to infuse one's home with joy. Her site is filled with ways to bring pleasure into everyday life. (I imagine Tomkins might say she includes both the enjoyment-joy continuum and interest-excitement affect to accommodate individual differences maximally.)

In her book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Lee deconstructs joy into ten abstract principles, from "energy" to "renewal," that contribute to joy's composition or fuel its discovery. She examines research relating to each of her domains, drawing from many disciplines, again representing universals, and illustrates her concepts with examples from her own and others' personal experiences.

To amplify your own joy, you might draw on lessons from Tomkins's theory or from Lee's analysis. Return to my initial exercise, and try defining some of your joys and their sources. If you have difficulty finding them, consider these possibilities:

  • Are you focusing on the experiences of others rather than your own?
  • What brings the greatest meaning to your life? Does purpose bring you joy?
  • Can you examine your goals and identify small steps that move you towards meeting them?
  • Which experiences draw you in more deeply, and which would you prefer to limit or avoid?
  • How much 'me' and 'we' do you have in your closest relationships?

As an additional exercise, think of three times you felt pure joy.

Copyright 2021 Roni Beth Tower


Lee, Ingrid F. (2018). Joyful. Little Brown Spark; New York Boston London

Tomkins, S. S. (1962). Affect, imagery and consciousness, Vol. 1: The positive affects. New York: Springer.

More from Roni Beth Tower Ph.D., ABPP
More from Psychology Today

More from Roni Beth Tower Ph.D., ABPP

More from Psychology Today