Unlike feelings of happiness or contentment, which can fluctuate depending on our circumstances, joy is something that we can experience all the time. Joy is a state of knowing that we are living fully and in community with others. It is a lightness that comes from having a sense of transcendent purpose and meaning to our lives. And it is a gift that is offered to us daily for free — all we have to do is receive it.
But that brings us to an important question: How do we actually receive joy? While joy is ultimately a free gift from God, we can only receive it by changing our thinking and habits. In other words, we have to choose actions and attitudes that allow us to receive it. Here are four simple ways to receive and cultivate joy — both for ourselves and to share with others as well.
One of the best ways to combat feelings of hopelessness, anger, frustration, and envy — all states of being that are opposed to joy — is to choose to be grateful. We can be thankful for all sorts of things — even some of the most mundane and smallest of things — as long as we genuinely appreciate them. It just requires some intentional effort, consistency, and creativity.
For example, how about being thankful for that hot cup of coffee we can wake up to every morning? What about dinner with a friend or family member during the week? Or how about a relatively smooth commute that doesn’t involve any major traffic jams?
We can even consider more fundamental things in our lives that are easy to take for granted, such as having legs that allow us to walk and exercise, indoor heating during the winter, or eyes that allow us to marvel at the beauty of our surroundings.
While there are countless things for which to be grateful, in order to reap the benefits of joy through our gratitude we have to call to mind these things often and consciously.
One way of doing this is to write down three small things every day for which we are grateful, which would take no longer than five minutes. We could also journal a few times a week about all of the prayers that were answered (it’s easy to overlook how many things do go right in our lives). Or we can simply offer up a prayer of gratitude before bed for something that happened (or didn’t happen) during the day.
Serving others by helping at a soup kitchen or going on a month-long mission trip are both great ways to cultivate joy in our lives because service like this helps us see the world from a perspective on the margins. But we don’t have to serve in large ways in order to receive joy.
It only takes 30 minutes to reach out to call a neglected friend or neighbor. Can we send a nice email — or, better yet, a handwritten letter to someone thanking them for their presence in our lives (this also ties back to gratitude, knocking out two birds with one stone!). Can we willingly offer up a prayer for someone who is struggling, or commit ourselves to complimenting someone every day? As St. Therese of Lisieux instructs us, it’s enough to do “small things with great love.”
There are millions of ways to offer small acts of service that can bring joy to both others and ourselves. The key, again, is to be intentional about actually doing these things — so plan it out. Set a reminder on your phone. Add an event to your calendar. Find ways to remember to serve, so that over time doing these things becomes habitual.
Of course, engaging in larger acts of service is still a great way to cultivate joy as well. What gifts or strengths do you harbor that you could put to use for others? If you are good with kids, consider tutoring once a week. If you are a gifted musician, consider volunteering at a parish or community group. The more our lives embody doing things for others in both small and large ways, the more joy will become a staple of our everyday lives.
Look for the “Good News”
It can be easy to default to negativity and cynicism. As David Foster Wallace said in his famous commencement speech “This Is Water,” our “default setting” is to be negative and overly cynical when it comes to our lives and others.
This means we have to actively work against this mindset. We have to choose to consider and think about the good in others and not just about their irritating or flawed qualities.
Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, PhD, has written that we can increase our joy by intentionally writing down the names of people and contemplating — daily — what makes them lovable. How are they reflecting God’s mercy? What are their endearing quirks? How do they bring light into the world? By thinking intentionally about these things and then writing them down, we are not only better able to serve them in love (because we will start to feel more love toward them), but we can experience more joy about having these very people in our lives.
The same can be said about any event or circumstance in our lives. While it’s not helpful to ignore the reality of tragedy or disappointment, we tend to focus on the worst in every situation, magnifying its effect.
For example, we may not love our job, but is it really as bad as we make it? Are there some professional benefits that we are overlooking? Have we made friends and connections through our job that have made our lives richer that we’re forgetting about?
Again, it can be helpful to foster this type of thinking by regularly doing writing exercises and thinking about them. Something like mindfulness meditation can also be beneficial, which can help us become more patient with our circumstances and other people as well as better able to reverse our default negative thinking through greater awareness.
This is a big one, and at times one of the hardest habits to cultivate in order to maintain joy in our lives. Like joy, forgiveness isn’t a feeling. We may not be able to control how we feel toward someone, especially if that person has hurt us or a loved one in grave ways.
But we can choose to think and act in certain ways toward that person. We can choose to pray daily for that person. We can choose not to think ill of them. We can choose to try to understand (not exonerate) why they did what they did through empathy. And we can remind ourselves of the ways we have fallen in our own lives and how we need forgiveness as well.
There are several ways to do this, but they each require a choice and a willingness to think or act in a different way. In time, the feelings of forgiveness may come (though they may not). There may be times we need the help of a counselor or professional to work through forgiving someone (and forgiving someone who is still likely to harm us doesn’t mean we need to allow ourselves to continue to be harmed or to keep them in our lives).
Maintaining forgiveness in our lives also means being willing to ask for forgiveness when we have harmed others. In fact, in 12-step programs for those struggling with addictions or unhealthy attachments, two of the steps deal directly with forgiveness. Step eight advises participants to make a list of everyone they have harmed. And step nine advises making amends to them (unless doing so would cause further injury).
These steps have proven to be helpful strategies for individuals in finding healing and freedom from a host of addictive behaviors. And because we all struggle with some form of addictive or disordered behavior by virtue of being flawed, sinful human beings, seeking the forgiveness of others is an effective way to cultivate joy in our lives.
Ultimately, joy is a habit connected to our capacity to love and desire what is good. The more we are able to long for the greatest good in life, which is connected to God, the more joy we will experience because God’s love is faithful and unending. We will be anchored in a reality that does not change, and find fulfillment in it even when we face suffering.
So joy is within our power to cultivate with habits and choices that put us in touch with the greatest good in life. Intentionally practicing gratitude, serving others, seeking the “good news” of our lives, and offering forgiveness are time-tested methods to grow in love and patience, and to grow in our awareness of God’s love for each one of us.