When we started working on this article, things in our country and the world were swiftly crumbling, and I certainly felt the impact. And then last week happened, and it felt as though the rug was pulled out from under my feet. I was recently reminded, “intellectually knowing that something is coming does not prepare you for the devastation in the body when it hits,” and it hit. Considering the recent supreme court rulings against the backdrop of the past few months and the years before, it is unmistakable that we have been contending with a lot. From Covid to increased attacks and the stripping of our civil rights to a seemingly endless stream of mass shootings fueled by extremist ideology, it’s easy to feel like giving up. Even without the challenges of everyday adult life, such as work, figuring out who we are or who we want to be, and navigating relationships, so many of us feel inundated by attacks on our sense of safety. For marginalized groups, including women, BIPOC, and LGBTQIA+, the rights to bodily autonomy and liberty are being eliminated and threatened, and it is clear that these attacks will not subside anytime soon.
So what are we doing talking about joy? I considered trying to shift gears last minute or skip an article this month, but I think a discussion on joy is necessary, especially during this hellish and heartbreaking time.
Why? Even though we may feel hopeless and like giving up, we must find a way to keep marching forward. If we don’t, we lose. It’s as simple as that. So we need joy to continue to propel us onward. We need joy so our mental health can withstand the barrage of difficulties inundating our lives on the daily. And here we are.
I know that the pursuit of joy and happiness is not as easy as it may have been when we were children, playing in the sandbox or popping bubbles. Below we will consider the necessity of joy and how to find it while also making room for grief, anger, and everything else. And how to think about joy while remaining committed to pursuing social justice or when just getting through the day or getting out of bed is hard enough work.
Finding joy is often much easier said than done, even during relatively quiet times. Most of us would say we’d like to be happy; however, it can be tough to obtain for various reasons. If you live in America, you are trained, explicitly and implicitly, to prioritize success over happiness. In some families, the message is “succeed above all else.” And all we have to do is turn on a reality television show or look at social media to see how our society glorifies wealth and those with significant means. However, prioritizing financial success over everything else is not how all other countries function. Our European and Australian counterparts take a gap year between high school and college “to see the world and find themselves,” while the more commonly encouraged path in the US is kindergarten through bachelor’s degree. The faster and more efficiently you do this, the better.
Researchers consider people in Denmark to be some of the happiest people in the world. On the country’s website, “According to the World Happiness Report, happiness is closely linked to social equality and community spirit – and Denmark does well on both. Denmark has a high level of equality and a strong sense of common responsibility for social welfare.”
Not exactly the American experience.
We learn to prioritize success over happiness based on the assumption that the more wealth and material gain we accumulate, the happier we’ll be. This correlation between success/wealth and happiness sets us up to fail and makes us less happy overall. We wind up spending so much time and energy striving for these essentially hollow markers of success that we ultimately become disconnected from the joy to be found in our everyday lives. Many neglect interests and hobbies that bring us the most joy and happiness unless there is a direct benefit to our work.
If this undercurrent was not enough, it is crucial to consider that there are real and systemic barriers in place that can make members of marginalized communities understand that prioritizing happiness is not an option. When all of your energy is focused on just trying to stay afloat (financially or emotionally), it can be hard to make space for finding what makes you happy.
Before we continue, it is also worth noting that joy and happiness, while similar, are different. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, the designer Ingrid Fetell Lee clarified, “Happiness is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time.” She pointed out that joy is momentary and small in its scale. In those moments of joy – even for a beat – we feel more alive. Lee points out that the adding up of those moments is what leads to happiness.
While Lee is brilliant and adds valuably to this conversation, the element of mental health must be considered. Lee explains that external elements impact happiness, like bright colors and round shapes, but it does not stop there. Even with the most brilliant colors and roundest shapes, sometimes joy and happiness are elusive. There are many internal and external barriers in place to keep people feeling sad and hopeless. For those struggling with mental health, experiencing joy and happiness can seem nearly impossible. Many mental health conditions alter how we perceive reality, making it even more challenging to find happiness. Compounding this challenge, it is also not uncommon for people to experience fear or anxiety around allowing themselves to feel joy because they are worried that something negative will follow.
While mental health issues can make it difficult to experience joy and happiness, there are things we can do to improve our odds of experiencing joy and happiness. Critically, this work is so important because it is both enjoyable and good for you. Studies have shown that laughter reduces anxiety and that positive emotions can lower stress hormones and build emotional resilience. Additionally, research shows that happiness lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease, lowers your blood pressure, and enables better sleep.
So how do we improve the chances of experiencing more joy? While the experience of joy is highly subjective and will mean different things to different people, there are a few universally applicable strategies to begin making more space for joy in one’s life.
First and foremost, we would encourage people to really take time to think about what joy means to them. As Brene Brown says, “Joy comes to us in moments – ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.” It’s not that one should not strive for that promotion, hitting the big shot in a championship game, or having the partner of their dreams profess undying love; it’s just that other significant things may also be happening, and it can help to acknowledge them.
We often assume it has to be something big and grandiose because we think of joy as this exceptional and singular feeling we can only acquire in perfect circumstances. This mindset causes us to overlook the simpler and smaller ways we can find joy. It also leads us to ignore the reality that there is the potential for joy in the seemingly mundane, everyday occurrences in our lives. Anything from your morning routine of making coffee to taking a few moments to dance to your favorite song to watching animal rescue videos are all opportunities for joy. It can bring you joy if it makes you smile or laugh or generally lifts your spirits. Additionally, Eastern spiritual leaders have known that hitting a bell, walking through the steps of a tea ceremony, or chanting in a state of flow, while not evoking broad smiles, can bring joy.
Take a moment to think of a few everyday activities that bring you joy.
After you’ve found a few examples of whatever joy means to you, be intentional about allowing yourself more of it. Make more space for it in your daily schedule. By engaging in daily practices that you know will elicit joy, you are helping yourself create a more joy-filled approach to life. If you stack up enough of these moments, you improve the chances of increasing your level of happiness.
Next, practice gratitude for what we have and for others.
When we practice gratitude, we are often happier overall because it reminds us not to take anything for granted and to appreciate the good that does exist in our lives more fully. One of our colleagues used to write five things each night that they were thankful for. At first, it was a pleasant endeavor, but it quickly became a scribbling routine. When they took it to the next level and started calling or texting people to express their gratitude more directly for something they did that day or in the past, it meant that much more. Some of us can simply be grateful for our access to running water, a nice park in the neighborhood, or the relationships we have formed with those closest to us. For others, keeping that in our heads is not enough, and we need to connect that gratitude with someone else. Regardless, when we are intentional about how we engage with what and who we have in our lives, we can derive much more pleasure and joy from them.
Give back to others
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage that it’s “better to give than it is to receive,” There’s undoubtedly some truth to this. Similar to practicing gratitude, finding ways to give to others makes us more grateful and appreciative of what we have and makes it easier to find joy in those often overlooked parts of our lives. Giving back also creates joy on a biochemical level; it turns out that humans are hardwired for generosity. It helped us form tribes that kept us alive thousands of years ago and has social benefits today. When we engage in charitable acts, our brains are flooded with feel-good chemicals that come together to form the “helper’s high.”
Change your environment.
Studies confirm what Lee asserts. Find bright, colorful environments, go into nature, and look for patterns that enrich our visual and sensory experiences. Our environments have a prominent role to play in our happiness as well. It’s generally much easier to find joy in a safe, healthy, clean environment with access to nature and green spaces than it would be for those who live in environments where all of those things are limited, if they exist at all.
Do it as an act of resistance.
The movements of “Black Joy” and “Pride Month,” whether you affiliate with them or not, offer valuable wisdom. Finding ways to experience joy, and stacking it up to enjoy some happiness that some in the world want to keep us from, can be an act of resistance. An act that reminds us that we are still here and that our lives are worth living and celebrating. While the government, online trolls, and even neighbors seem primed to limit our access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, they cannot take that joyful feeling of dancing with good friends or the small spark we get when we know we were able to help a friend.
Although it may not always feel easy to access, joy is an integral component of a person’s overall mental health as it plays a crucial role in one’s ability to find fulfillment in life.
Whatever avenues you choose to pursue to make more space for joy in your life, remember that you are not alone. If you need a safe space to explore what brings you joy or happiness or what is holding you back from these, please feel free to reach out to us. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are here.