Where to Find Joy According to Science

Read the science behind how to find joy.

The other night I was with a group of friends and we were playing darts. It was a fairly ordinary night out with nothing particularly special going on, but I found myself pausing to soak the moment in. I looked around and saw how much fun we were all having just being together and I felt a deep sense of contentment. It wasn’t exactly happiness — it was deeper than that. I would describe it as a feeling of joy that stemmed from appreciating my friends and the peace and contentment that came from being all together.

I’m sure you’ve had those moments, too, whether it was a spiritual experience, a sense of wonder and awe in nature (e.g. seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time), a celebration (such as a birthday party), or a feeling of deep connection with another person. Like my own recent experience, these moments also evoke a similar feeling of joy.

When spring rolls around and Easter approaches, there’s a lot of talk about joy. Whether it’s Easter, graduations, newborn babies, or weddings, you’ll often hear people describe these moments as joy-filled. Although we instinctively know that joy is something desirable and good, it can be difficult to describe. It can sometimes feel like more of an “I’ll know it when I see it” experience.

Luckily, there is some helpful psychological research and wisdom from our faith tradition that can help to pin down joy. After all, it is more long-lasting than happiness and is an important factor in improving your quality of life. Best of all, it doesn’t depend on how much money you make.

Joy, defined

Before we can dive into ways to cultivate joy in your daily life, it’s helpful to have a working definition of joy. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines joy as “a feeling of extreme gladness, delight, or exaltation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.”

They then break joy into two categories: active and passive. Passive joy is defined as a kind of contentment with the way things currently are. For example, my experience of joy watching my friends and I having fun is an example of passive joy. Active joy, on the other hand, is defined as wanting to share your experience of joy with others. This could be wanting to share an amazing travel experience with your close friends because you want them to experience the same wonder and awe that you experienced.

It’s also important to note that joy is different than happiness. Research has found that joy activates different systems than happiness does. Joy activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes feelings of peace and calm; while happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with excitement, energy, and activity. The experience of joy is associated with an increase in energy as well as an increase in confidence and self-esteem, according to theAPA.

A state of being

Another difference between joy and happiness is that joy can coexist with more negative emotions, such as grief or pain, while happiness is much harder to sustain in the presence of negative emotions. Psychologist George Vaillant describes this difference by saying,  “Without the pain of farewell, there is no joy of reunion” and “Without the pain of captivity, we don’t experience the joy of freedom.”

We see this paradox most clearly in the example of the lives of the saints. For example, St. Mother Teresa was surrounded by pain, suffering, and death — and yet was joyful. “The best way to show my gratitude is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy,” she said.

Similarly, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, despite suffering from tuberculosis and undergoing spiritual struggles, was joyful even in the moment of death. A photograph taken of her shortly after her death shows a peaceful smile on her face and she shows no signs of intense suffering. These saints are just two among countless other saints who lived with joy in the midst of suffering.

Where to find joy

Joy can be found in some surprising places, including architecture and design. Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer, spoke about how joy informs her work. Joy is a feeling that “makes us smile and laugh and feel like we want to jump up and down,” she said, but it is often overlooked in favor of pursuing happiness. Because of this, our workspaces are often joyless, she said. She says embracing colors and other elements like movement and round shapes instead of sharp and angular lines can help cultivate joy in your environment.

Along with having an environment that promotes joy, make it a point to notice those things around you that cultivate joy. Often, it’s easier to notice the negative things in life and let possibilities for joy slip by. Simply pausing to appreciate your environment, your relationships, and your experiences can help you get better and better at cultivating joy on a daily basis.

Joy is also found through sharing what’s positive in your life with others. (Remember the APA’s definition of active joy as feeling compelled to share your joy with others?) One study found that telling people about your happiness has more benefits than if you just kept it to yourself. So if you find yourself enjoying a wonderful sunset, take a picture and share it with a friend, for example. Or, if you had an experience full of joy, share it! This could be a recent trip you took, a delicious meal you had, or a great conversation.

And last but not least, look to the lives of the saints for examples of how to cultivate joy. Who better than the men and women who have been recognized for living exceptionally holy lives? Each of them found a way to cultivate a state of joy even while going through trials and experiencing suffering. They all have amazing stories! Pick a saint who inspires you, read more about their life, and look for ways they cultivated joy within their daily life. You could always start with the saint who has the same personality type as you.

Grotto quote graphic about how to find joy: "Joy can be found in some surprising places...make it a point to notice those things around you that cultivate joy."

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