What Is Joy?
Joy is one of the most wonderful emotions in the spectrum of what we can feel as human beings. It can arrive instantly. The sudden scent of baking cookies can bring back memories of weekends spent at Grandma’s house as a child. Standing on a beach with the sounds of seagulls calling, and waves gently crashing against the shore, can remind us of summer vacations as a teen. Endless carefree hours spent hanging out with friends, bonfires at night, a first love….
And yet for the ease and intensity with which it can suddenly appear, joy can also be incredibly elusive. There can be times when joy seems completely gone from our lives, and not likely to ever return. A darkness and heaviness covers us like a weighted blanket which despite all our efforts, feels like it cannot be pushed to the side. We question whether happiness is still possible for us.
So what is this thing called “Joy”? Where does it come from? Are we born with it? Is it a learned emotion? Can we find it again if we’ve become disconnected from it?
I believe we are born with the capacity for joy. Like love, courage, hope, and so many other emotions, we are pre-loaded with the ability to experience it. Similar to a software being pre-loaded onto a computer, joy is pre-loaded into the human operating system. And under the right conditions, in the right environment, that capacity is unleashed to bring fulfillment in life.
For most of us, this probably happens soon after we’re born. We are held and comforted as a baby. We’re wrapped in a soft blanket, or cared for in a loving way. These events open the joy program in our system and we experience happiness, contentment, peace, and all the other emotions associated with it. This is a wonderful event because joy is a positive feeling and part of our brain wiring is to seek out positive feelings. So having experienced joy, we then seek it out. We reach for the soft blanket which feels so comfortable on our skin. We seek out with our eyes, or our cries, the person who treats us in a loving way.
It’s quite possible though, that the joy program doesn’t open when we’re a baby. In a hostile environment, where love and compassion and caring are not present, the joy program may lie latent. Or if not latent, seldom used because other programs like fear, uncertainty, or survival are being loaded time and time again.
If joy is loaded often, it’s easier and easier to load it the next time. Same for fear, uncertainty and survival though.
These two possibilities can significantly impact the next phases of our lives because we tend to default to these operating systems which get the most use. If joy is loaded often, it’s easier and easier to load it the next time. Same for fear, uncertainty and survival though.
To make joy even more fascinating, despite this propensity to load the operating system which gets the most use, there’s no guarantee that a life once filled with joy will always be filled with joy. Or the opposite. The human existence is rarely constant. Every life has ups and downs.
The Language or Joy
In many ways, joy is like language fluency. A child born into a bi-lingual family where both languages are spoken daily, will by default become bi-lingual. It’s not a conscious choice on the part of their brain. It just happens. But if over time the child has less and less of one of those languages in their environment, it will slowly start to become harder and harder to speak or understand the language. The brain is busy with other programs, and therefore those programs run faster and more efficiently.
Eventually, with enough disuse, the person can have almost no recollection of the second language. And yet, numerous studies have shown that the fluency is still there. In the right environment, under the right conditions, the connections in the brain which had previously enabled fluency, will re-activate. And at a pace far faster than if the person were starting with no knowledge of the language, they can regain their fluency.
This is inspiring as it relates to joy. Because in the down times, when it may feel like returning to joy and finding your happiness again is an impossibility, the truth is that it isn’t. The program is in us. Always. Ready to be re-activated.
This concept of fluency is important too for someone who did not have a joyful childhood. Their life may not have established deep patterns of joy. So what about them? What we know from language learning is that the fastest way to fluency for someone who was not raised learning a language, is to immerse themselves in the language they want to learn. In an immersion environment, people can gain fluency in as little as six months.
You can immerse yourself in the language of joy and become fluent in all it entails.
This is fantastic news as it relates to joy. Because even if your life so far has not been filled with joy, it doesn’t mean your life going forward won’t be. You can immerse yourself in the language of joy and become fluent in all it entails.
Either of these; re-gaining fluency, or gaining it for the first time, comes with challenges. Our brains are very basic in many ways. While they are definitely wired to pursue that which brings us pleasure, they also have an overriding desire to stay alive. That can translate into a great hesitancy to change. “Our reality may not be what we want, but at least it’s keeping us alive,” the brain thinks. “So let’s just do today what we did yesterday.”
Find What Brings You Joy
This can be overcome though, through sampling and conviction. Sampling is trying things on a small scale. Giving the brain a chance to experience alternatives in an environment with little risk. When we do this, we open up great possibilities for change, which in the context of this discussion, opens up great possibilities for more joy in our life.
Sampling joy can be as simple as watching a YouTube video about something you’re interested in. No need to take your life savings and go open up a flower shop the first day the idea comes to you. Get online and look up a video about flower decorating. Are you bored in the first minute? Or do you feel joy and find happiness watching a flower decoration come to life? Either one is fine. They’re both clues to the truth of what brings you joy.
If joy is your reaction, watch a few videos every day. Pretty soon you’ll be so inspired that the next time you’re at the market, you’ll probably find yourself getting some flowers and arranging them. A few weeks more, you’ll likely be buying even more types of flowers and putting them together in unique ways. Joy will be growing, as will your brain’s willingness to be more open to what’s bringing you joy.
Or maybe you’ll watch that first flower arranging video and be bored. This is where conviction comes in. It’s easy to just disengage completely at that point. That part of the brain which seeks safety is looking for excuses to go back to doing exactly what it did yesterday. Except maybe it’s not the flower arranging that’s the issue. It’s the way the person organized their video, or the types of flowers they were using, or the setting on the screen…. Conviction is the willingness to push through the boredom for a little while. If after ten videos by ten different people, the emotion you feel is still much closer to bored or annoyed than joyful, no problem. That’s a good clue that maybe there’s an alternate path to your version of joy.
If you’re struggling to identify what brings you joy, ask yourself how you would spend today if it was the last day of your life. You get today, and today only, then that’s it. Write down your answers. I’ve never met anyone who when faced with that scenario, filled their last day with things that didn’t bring them joy.
So great. By creating a scenario that tricks the brain a little bit, you will have identified a list of starting points for your joy fluency immersion program. Then it goes back to sampling and conviction. Put five minutes on your calendar each day where you commit to a joy experience. Whatever that means to you. At the end of your first “Joy Week” note what you liked best. What made you feel the most joy? Replace the activities which didn’t, with ones that did.
For week two, make it six minutes per day. No more. Just six minutes per day. At the end of the week, go through the same process of identifying what you liked best and what you didn’t. Keep moving in this direction, only after week five, make it a daily process. Every day exchange one minute of non-joyous moments, with one minute of something which brings you joy.
This process is incredibly empowering and enjoyable. A great time to do it is right before you go to bed. Keeping a little journal where you write down what you’re adding and replacing makes it even easier to see the patterns of what brings you joy.
the brain will eventually go from resistance to seeking… It will be actively coming up with all kinds of additional ways to seek joy in the days ahead.
Whether you were born with joy fluency and are re-gaining it, you’re learning it for the first time, or you’re simply interested in having more joyful minutes each day, this simple process will allow you to make it happen. And because of the way it unfolds, the brain will eventually go from resistance to seeking. No longer will your brain want to keep things the way they were today. It will be actively coming up with all kinds of additional ways to seek joy and find happiness in the days ahead.
Store Your Joyful Moments
This is when the game gets really fun. Because all the joyful moments you experience in life are also stored. And once you experience them, they have exponential value because they can turn an ordinary moment into a joyful one. This happened to me just the other day. I dropped my daughter off at school and while I was waiting for her to put her bike away, I saw a mom and her little daughter standing next to a tree. The daughter was probably two years old or so, and she was watching a squirrel which was nearby. When the daughter took a step toward the squirrel, it ran up the tree and was standing halfway up the trunk, looking back at her. The little girl thought this was so funny she burst out in laughter.
Now before I became a parent, I didn’t really pay attention to kids. I didn’t ignore them exactly, but I just didn’t really notice them. They were there, I was aware of them and their parent, but that was it. Something like someone else’s daughter laughing about a squirrel wouldn’t have impacted me much, if at all.
But that was before I became a parent. Now, having been a parent for many years, I hold in my brain lots and lots of joy filled times when my own little girl was laughing about something. And because of that, when I saw this whole event take place with the squirrel, the laughter of the little girl connected the joy and happiness moments stored in my brain associated with my own daughter laughing. My mind flooded with wonderful memories, special moments, and in turn…joy.
An otherwise ordinary moment became a special one, thanks to the exponential power of joy.
Wishing you many wonderful moments ahead as your own joy journey unfolds, and you find your happiness in life.
Your fellow traveler, John
John Strelecky is the author of the #1 Bestselling The Cafe on the Edge of the World and Big Five for Life series of books. Subscribe to this blog to learn more about his works and to get help discovering and living your version of an amazing life.