I have a friend named Joy, who is a true pleasure to be with. During these challenging times, I have been thinking more about her and about her name. As COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, and we are searching for coping strategies, many are making an effort to notice and more fully embrace the positive moments.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “joy” as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” However, the emotion of joy is, in fact, much more complex and profound, difficult to define, and is crucial to our wellness; the experience of joy is a fundamental factor in the difference between just living our lives vs. truly flourishing. Though joy is hard to describe, we certainly know it when we feel it.
Joy is associated with: the strong urge to smile, a sense of playfulness, vitality, exuberance, hopefulness, a feeling of more openness, a broadening of thinking and creativity, perceptual changes (e.g. colors are brighter), a sense of expanded freedom (both physical and cognitive), as well as feelings of safety and ease, harmony and peace. Of special importance is the stronger sense of social bonding associated with joy, a feeling of connection with others.
The concept of joy has been explored in religious texts, including Christian and Jewish scriptures. The understanding and fostering of joy are embedded in religious rituals and practices. Joy is sometimes experienced as a feeling of transcendence and can have a spiritual aspect not exclusive to religious faith. Joy is often experienced in the context of nature, as expressed in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Wendell Berry and numerous other artists and writers throughout history.
The question often arises as to the difference between happiness and joy. Some posit that happiness is determined more by external factors, such as when positive things happen, whereas joy is more intrinsic. In this model, joy derives more from how one perceives the world and interprets situations. Joy is therefore more durable, less fragile, than happiness.
As with most things psychological, one’s capacity for joy is probably a mix of “nature” and “nurture.” There do seem to be individual constitutional differences in terms of baseline positive/negative emotional state (a “hedonic set point”). And it also seems that the capacity for joy can be cultivated; this is something we can work on, a skill to learn and practice. This involves actively focusing one’s attention on positive moments and emotions. We often focus on the things not going our way even when the positives outnumber the negative. Instead, take a pause to notice, for example, when something or someone makes you smile or you feel content in the moment. And we can practice taking some time to consider which things are going well in our lives.
Also important is noticing and addressing one’s own cognitive biases. For example, noticing the “should” statements we make to ourselves, which lead us to feel guilt or shame. Or overgeneralization, the tendency to assume that one negative experience will apply to all future experiences.
Another frequently suggested strategy is the practice of gratitude, specifically identifying and talking out loud with others about things (and people) we are grateful for. As a bonus, joy and gratitude build upon one another, increasing both in the process.
Also compelling is the fact that acting purposefully to bring joy to other people provides exponential benefits; there is some evidence that positive emotions can be contagious, so this can set up a positive feedback cycle. Seeking out opportunities for laughter and time spent in nature also help. Of note, the field of Positive Psychology examines how people can enhance their positive emotions and wellbeing.
The above strategies are not meant to suggest that we deny pain or avoid the healthy acknowledgment and sharing of our negative feelings, such as sadness, anger, and grief. Allowing ourselves to experience, process, and cope with our full range of emotions is important. But when negative feelings and cognitions block our ability to experience the positive, things can get out of balance.
George Vaillant is a psychiatrist and director of the Grant Study of Adult Development at Harvard. This landmark study followed over 800 men and women over a period of 70 years, starting when they were college students, looking at the determinants of various health outcomes. One unexpected finding was that good mental health is a major factor in physical health and wellness as we age. This is where we loop back to the relationship between joy and human connection mentioned above. The Grant study found that, out of the multitude of factors measured, “the capacity for loving relationships” was the primary predicator of life satisfaction in older men. Dr. Vaillant summed this up in the title of one of his presentations: “Good genes are nice, but joy is better.”