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The Science of Joy

Updated: May 31


“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river running through you, a joy." ~ Rumi


Joy is defined scientifically as an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion. We can measure this through direct physical expressions. Think of a smile, a "jump for joy", the sound of laughter. Many of us cannot deny that physical, even visceral sensation we experience during moments of joy. It is immediate and it is hard to deny when we are "in it". The challenge for each of us becomes that we often overlook the importance of joy in our lives. We do not appreciate how these "little moments" lead to the longer lasting happiness we all long for. Joy in fact is a high energy form of happiness.


“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh


Happiness on the other hand, is a bit more vague and often more challenging to measure. The study of happiness, gratitude, and other “positive psychology” is fairly recent, since the 1990's, a much shorter time than we would think. With this emergence of Positive Psychology, research on happiness and joy has exploded. One of the most reassuring things researchers have found about happiness is that much of it is in our control. Only 10% is determined by our life circumstances. A whopping half is determined by genetics… but another 40% is based on what we do, everyday. I’ll take 40% where I can get it! And do what I can to live a happier life.


Ingrid Fetell Lee takes this a step further to hone in on feelings of joy and it's impact on your life and on the world. Lee is a designer and the founder of the Aesthetics of Joy and author of Joyful. According to psychological literature, joy is an intense momentary experience of positive emotion — one that’s recognizable through physical expressions like smiling and laughter and through physical feelings such as a sense of lightness in your body. Joy is about feeling good in the moment, right now. Our constant pursuit of happiness in our lives can actually lead us to miss fleeting moments of joy. Present moment type of living. Joy in and of itself reminds us of the common humanity we feel.


Events like those that have occurred as recently as this week, breed and even showcase the polarization, politics, and divisions in our world today. These unfortunate realities make it seem as though the differences that exist between us are so vast. The reality though is that underneath it all, we ALL experience JOY in many of the same ways. As Ingrid shares in her TEDx Talk, "even though we are told that [moments of joy] are just passing pleasures, in fact they are really important...because they remind us of the shared humanity we find in the common experience of the physical world." Further, joy begins with our senses. Whether it is the vibrancy of colors in beautiful flowers, fireworks, bubbles, hot air balloons, rainbows, or ice cream (with sprinkles), there is a beauty, undeniable patterns (many of these objects are circular), and with it comes a feeling of lightness and abundance. Designers refer to this as aesthetics, derived from a Greek work which means "I feel, I sense, I perceive." Unfortunately however, much of our world is NOT filled with this vibrancy. Why? Because at some point and time we were perhaps judged for our outward expressions of joy. Being joyful is often seen as being childish, unserious, maybe even self indulgent.


Neuroscientists took the study of joy a bit further, when examining the brain under FMRI machines, and when showing study participants images of angular and round objects and determined that the amygdala (the portion of the brain associated with stress, fear, and anxiety) were lite up when exposed to images of angular objects. There seems to be an unconscious sense of caution to angular objects, perceiving they could harm us. Interestingly when researching this, I found that the remodel of Sandy Hook Elementary School included these design concepts related to circularity, abundance and joy.


If we agree that "Joy is the most basic building block of happiness", as Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist points out, then how can we embrace this more in each of our lives? How can we make time for joy each and EVERY day. What would it look like? If joy is truly hiding in everyday moments... How do we find it? And most importantly, how can we practice it MORE?


Here are a few fundamental aspects of JOY to consider:


  1. Joy Spreads- it is contagious. Think of how easily we spread joy to each other through smiles, tone of voice, nonverbal communications, body postures. If we express it, we attract others and they are exposed to joy as well.

  2. Joy Breeds Clarity - it is not a distraction from work. Joy can actually strengthen our work and how we show up and experience the world. We are more in tune to the work we are doing and more productive, with clarity of mind.

  3. Joy Creates Opportunities- think bigger picture thinking. Outside of the box. As we conclude in the work of Positive Intelligence, shifting our mindset into a more positive way of seeing the world opens us up to a bigger vision for the future, whereas negative emotions tend to give us "tunnel vision" and cause us to obsess about the immediate challenge versus seeing the opportunities that could be possible.

  4. Joy Builds Resilience- counteracts of the physical and physiological effects of stress (increased heart rate, cortisol levels, blood pressure, etc.) and actually is a key factor in our recovery process if we have experienced a negative emotions that elicited our "fight or flight response"...a tragedy, conflict, or any other stressor.

All of this points to the fact that NOW more than ever, we need to embrace the "little moments" of JOY in our lives each and every day. We need to be intentional in our daily experiences of JOY. One of the suggestions handed down to me was to actually schedule an Appointment with Joy for yourself each and every day. Mine resides on my calendar each morning at 5:30am. This is when the house is quiet, kids are asleep, and I can spend one hour experiencing whatever brings me joy that day. During this time I may integrate a little bit of yoga (moving my body), inspirational reading, and I always take some time to breathe and meditate (length of time varies) and drink a cup of tea. I also feel I am most myself in these moments, free of the demands of others. Knowing this is a place that I have the power to begin each day truly brings me JOY. It has become the perfect time for me to get creative with posting a message on social media to aid in inspiring others, to share my joy and that proverbial "smile" with the world.


My challenge to everyone is to make this "Appointment with Joy" with and for yourself. For those of us who have witnessed and in many ways experienced the tragedies of mass and school shootings in the United States, we must honor the memories of the innocent lives lost by ensuring that we live a life of joy. Not one of us can take for granted these fleeting moments of joy but intentionally make time for them and fully experience them. This is how we build our collective resilience to "bounce back" (though these experiences will forever be with us) and "take action", whatever that may look like to each of us with our unique sets of beliefs and circumstances. Regardless, we have the opportunity to act by:


  1. Practicing mindfulness- support ourselves in moving through the emotions, reflecting and meditating on them.

  2. Practice self care- this includes adequate sleep, healthy eating, and just "being" versus "doing" anything.

  3. Express your feelings- journaling on negative thoughts or experiences can be extremely therapeutic. The goal is to process, not to re-traumatize so, be gentle with yourself and even just brief stints can lead to improved wellbeing long term.

  4. Express creatively- this may be through art, dance, maybe even sport. The goal though is to move through the negative emotions, sometimes things that can be difficult to express with words.

  5. Embrace joy- savoring the simple moments with your child, during bath time, while reading a book, or even during a family meal. Maybe it is even noticing the bright blue sky or the butterfly passing by outside your window.

  6. Be inspired- make meaning from loss. What you can share with the world from your negative emotional experiences can facilitate healing in others, in the world.

In the end, these actions will open us up to JOY. The Science of Joy again reminds us that it can be experienced numerous times in a day, if we truly tune in to the world around us. It is important to give ourselves permission to embrace JOY for all its beauty and wonder in the simple things, to aid us in managing through the inevitable challenges of life. And, to take this a step further, I offer you the opportunity to continue to explore the power of JOY by reading The Book of Joy, which is at its most basic level a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu about finding joy and happiness in the face of suffering and grief. This book was in fact envisioned as a gift to the world to celebrate the Dalai Lama's 80th birthday and is structured as a "symbolic three-layer cake that aims to provide a practical foundation for cultivating and sustaining joy." Consider it my offering to you, a support as we all manage through the collective trauma of the past week.



" I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” ~Anne Frank









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