Although we experience more positive than negative elements in life, we are still more intensely and more quickly affected by the unpleasant ones. How can we protect our joy of living despite the problems that beset us?
A good night’s sleep, reading a good book, or ten pleasant minutes spent with your partner can be very easily ruined by the children quarrelling in the next room. Psychologists say that our natural tendency is to notice not the good things in our lives, but rather what is not going exactly as we would like. The common things of life—for instance, drinking a glass of cold water, a colleague saying “good morning” to you in the elevator, or your child spontaneously giving you a hug—become important especially when they don’t happen anymore.
Experiencing joy does not generally come naturally. Even if joy exists, choosing to access it requires conscious effort. Experiencing it involves anchoring in the present and accessing inner resources. It involves observing simplicity and accepting complexity. It means the return to what is good, to the One who is good, and the willingness to let ourselves be surprised by how life happens, processes that are not instinctive for us.
In a comprehensive article, Matthew Kuan Johnson brings to the fore research done within the “Theology of Joy and Good Life” project, a Yale University initiative that brought together philosophers, psychologists, and theologians. According to this research, joy is a “positive affective response to an objective external good, construed rightly and about which one is rightly concerned…[and] is tied to how I perceive things rather than to what things are in themselves”.
The intensity of the emotion can be lower and accompanied by feelings of calm, harmony, and peace: we close our eyes, smile warmly, and talk in a low voice. Joy can also be experienced with great intensity. In this case it involves increased energy: we laugh, jump, shout, run. Joy can be experienced on an individual or collective, social level. For instance, enjoying a moment of relaxation in a spa or meeting friends at a wedding.
Emotion can occur when a wish has been fulfilled—for example, in the case of completing a project. But we can also talk about anticipatory joy, when the fulfilment of the desire is perceived as imminent—for example, when we are going to meet a loved one. Joy has also been analysed as a state of mind (of short duration), a predisposition (of greater duration and frequency, found in certain people), and as a fruit of the Spirit, a spiritual feeling of satisfaction, confidence, or gratitude, even in the midst of persecution, suffering or severe pain.
Joy or happiness?
Although at the level of common language the two notions of joy and happiness are most often interchangeable, psychologists and theologians make a distinction between them. This difference is primarily related to the nature of each of the two emotions. From a report on happiness based mainly on the findings of neuroscientist Dean Burnett, we learn that “happiness is a reward, the brain telling us that something has gone right or we’ve done something which is beneficial.” Studies show that the level of happiness “appears to depend on the specific outcomes used to define success, as well as the resources that are available.”
The Bible describes joy as a fruit of the Spirit, and “when we find joy it’s infused with comfort and wrapped in peace. It’s an attitude of the heart and spirit, often synonymous with but not limited to following Christ Jesus and pursuing a Christian life.” We feel joy when we meditate on the life of Jesus Christ or when we are truly connected to ourselves and to God through prayer. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Joy does not depend on anything; it is complete as we receive it from above. Joy transcends time because the One who gives it transcends time.
Research on happiness demonstrates that it “springs not from any single component but from the interplay of higher pleasures, positive appraisals of life meaning, and social connectedness.”
At the same time, as Timothy Pychyl, associate professor in the Psychology Department of Carleton University, says: “To the extent that we’re making progress on our goals, we’re happier emotionally and more satisfied with our lives.” Joy does not depend on what will be, but on what is happening now.
It is how we relate to what surrounds us. Joy is leaning on life, including the little things. Happiness is “the brain telling us that something has gone right or we’ve done something which is beneficial.” It is related to personal advantage (to be loved by my partner, to get a good job). Joy happens around “being” and can sometimes involve sacrifice, giving up personal interests (to be a good partner, to help my colleagues succeed).
And if we do rejoice, then what?
The benefits that joy brings are not at all negligible (the advice of the Bible is still relevant today: “Rejoice…always!”). These benefits can be better explained with the help of the broaden-and-build theory, formulated by Barbara Fredrickson, researcher of positive emotions.
The idea of this theory is that “people should cultivate positive emotions [joy being one of them] in their own lives and in the lives of those around them, not just because doing so makes them feel good in the moment, but also because doing so transforms people for the better and sets them on paths toward flourishing and healthy longevity.” Psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel explains the theory through five big ideas:
- The ability to experience joy is always present. Your joy might be buried deep down in order to protect you from disappointment or hurt, but it’s still there.
- Joy has the special ability to broaden the mind’s perspective. In other words, joy can have an exponentially positive effect on one’s future thoughts and behaviours.
- Joy makes us want to play, follow our curiosity, and connect with others.
- Joy reduces the overall time spent in negative states, and the process of recovery from negative experiences is faster.
- Through deeply felt experiences of joy, people increase their creativity, knowledge, and resilience.
In conclusion, joy enhances our physical and mental health and develops our social skills.
How can we cultivate joy?
- Make a consistent effort to be grateful! Gratitude prepares the mind to turn to the bright side of life. Do not lose sight of what is good or positive—not as a superficial illusion, but in the details of life identify the full half of the glass! Train your mind to see what is good. Have you just suffered a loss? See how this situation has changed you for the better. Look at what you have learned about yourself and what you need to change in the future.
“The children of God may rejoice in all things and at all times. When troubles and difficulties come, believing in the wise providence of God, you may rejoice. […] By faith you may lay hold of the promises and lift up a hymn of thanksgiving to God.”
- Pay attention to the little things. When was the last time you noticed a butterfly flying on your way home from work?
- Give yourself time to enjoy yourself. Live every moment! Be present! Give that goodnight hug fully, not in a hurry. Speak less often and invest in the words you use. Stand still and watch the sun rise. Enjoy your cup of tea. Make that apple pie you’ve been putting off doing.
- Stay around children and learn from them. Laugh, play, draw, run, express yourself, break free!
- Because it is connected to the inner self, joy can be brought to the surface more often through writing. Write about yourself. Every day, write about what brought you joy!
- Joy occurs in a safe environment. Discuss what you enjoy with family members or close friends. Recognize the good in the lives of others.
- Trust God! Above all and everything is the great I Am. “When we can, notwithstanding disagreeable circumstances, rest confidingly in His love and shut ourselves in with Him, resting peacefully in His love, the sense of His presence will inspire a deep, tranquil joy. This experience gains for us a faith that enables us not to fret, not to worry, but to depend upon a power that is infinite.”
Joy depends only on us. So, looking at us and around us, I say with the apostle Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7). I will say it again: Rejoice!
Simona Condrachi consciously practices bringing joy to the ordinary situations of life, turning with daily gratitude to the great I Am.