Joy will sometimes find us on its own, but we’re generally responsible for going out and finding it ourselves. It’s an active search, not a passive waiting. In some ways, you can boil it down to two things — surrender and expression. Like Brené Brown says, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience.” We all deserve it, but it isn’t always easily gotten and often requires some deeper reflection to cultivate.
While reflection, specifically on gratitude, is certainly a path to joy — and one that gets easier to travel the more well-worn it becomes — there are other entry points. I’m willing to guess we’ve all stumbled through one at some point, however accidental, and maybe stumbled right out again. I want to talk about these entry or access points, the doorways that allow us to visit joy more often in our daily lives.
In the grand scheme of joy, nothing takes the place of reflection. But when you’re at hour 59 of a 60 hour work week, or you’ve just received the last bit of bad news you think you can handle, and you need a taste of joy to get you through, use the tools in your toolbox to build a doorway to joy.
1. Curate a playlist.
In the effort to answer the mysterious question, “What actually is music?” researchers have separated it into categories — arousal properties (calming vs. stimulating), emotional quality (happy, sad, peaceful), and structural features (tempo, pitch, tonality, etc.). When our brain processes all of this, it reacts, releasing certain chemicals like dopamine. One study found that people who intentionally listened to upbeat music improved their happiness levels in two weeks. When a different group was told to listen to non-positive music, the people didn’t experience the same effect.
Because the veil between us and joy grows thin when we play certain music, play a playlist, or multiple playlists, to listen to when you want to feel joy. There might be a mixture of “sad” and “happy” songs — anything that triggers a positive memory or emotion, including catharsis.
2. Belly laugh.
Similar to music, laughing has a chemical effect on our bodies. It swaps the cortisol in our blood with chemicals in the brain — dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. In fact, one study showed that people can actually withstand 15% more pain if they laugh for a few minutes beforehand. More and more research shows that laughter is, in some ways, a miracle drug.
You already know who the friends are that make you belly laugh. I bet you can see them in your head right now. Spend time with those people, and if you can’t be in-person, Facetime them or start a group text. Even if you can’t sit across the table from one another, you’ll start sharing funny videos and stories, and the next thing you know, you’ll be laughing (out loud).
3. Move your body.
A little goes a long way when it comes to moving your body. People who work out even once a week or for 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t do any exercise. Movement also induces chemical changes in the brain and prompts the creation of new brain cells. If you’re not a gym person, go for a walk! Dance around the kitchen! Play with your grandkids! It’s completely up to you.
Even better, move your body with someone else. Whether you’re taking a yoga class or just going on that stroll together, psychologists believe that synchrony — moving in the same way, at the same time as others — can lead to more joy. Perhaps, this is because it triggers the release of endorphins, which help us bond.
As you move through your life, encountering joy again and again like an old friend, keep a journal of those moments. What brought you joy? Who brought you joy? Write it all down in a list, so when dark days come around, and they inevitably will, you can look back on those moments like a map to the right doorway.