More often we tend to think of joy as something that just happens when an especially good moment comes our way. That’s true in its own way. But we can also be about building joy into our lives.
Building joy, or increasing our openness to feelings of happiness, requires a certain level of mindfulness. It also means making conscious choices to do those things that more often bring us a sense of satisfaction, pleasure or peace of mind. But first a little on the psychology of happiness–the mechanics of joy if you will. Understanding how such feelings are stirred helps us understand how better to cultivate them.
The Psychology of Happiness
Happiness is a little bit like art. We all know it when we feel it. Science suggests that there are roughly six biologically based emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise. All of the other feelings we might describe tend to be variations on these core emotions, subtly different based on the thoughts, situations, and intensity connected to these feelings. Each of these core feelings can vary in intensity. Lower intensity happiness is typically called contentment. A medium level of happiness we generally consider joy. A high intensity of happiness can be experienced as excitement.
Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, has identified in his research five primary sources of happiness: pleasure, engagement, accomplishment, relationships, and meaning. It seems to me we help increase our odds of being happy if we invest our time and energy into each of these five domains to some degree. Think of it as diversifying your emotional portfolio. As such, I find that happiness depends on having good moments, having good days, and more broadly having a good life. So, what do I mean by that?
A Good Moment
Pleasure and engagement fall under the category of “a good moment.” Being aware of a cool breeze, taking in a complement, enjoying the colors in a painting or an arrangement of flowers all would be good moments.
A Good Day
Engagement and accomplishment fall under the category of “a good day.” Taking time to consider your day before you go to sleep can be helpful. Notice the things you accomplished, however small. What were some positive connections that happened with other people (or the animals) in our life? Consider what made certain days good in the past? Try not to focus on people who may no longer be available to you but rather the activities you were doing and the frame of mind you had while doing them.
A Good Life
This one can feel a little overwhelming at first, so if it feels daunting, ease into it more slowly. It is often said that when we reach the end of our lives, most folks are not focused on status or possessions but rather on their relationships and whether their life had meaning. What are the relationships that you’re grateful for, that allowed you to get as however far you are in your life? That you would miss if they were gone? How have you been good to at least some of your family members and friends? What are the times that you have lived your values and been your better self? None of us are perfect at this, and yet all of us have had moments when we’ve been the person we wish our selves to be. Try focusing on the moments when you’ve succeeded in this, not failed. What are the moments in your life that have held the most meaning? Your past moments of living your values and finding meaning can be a foundation of hard earned wisdom for building a better life, for building joy.
Some More Ideas on Building Joy
I would offer three tips on building joy, on increasing our ability to find and experience happiness in life.
The first is to practice an attitude of gratitude. Mentally practice paying attention to the things in your life that you are grateful for. This doesn’t mean that you ignore or minimize the painful aspects of your life. Just make an effort to notice and linger for a moment on however many positives populate your day.
The second tip is necessary to achieve the first and will come as no surprise to most. Be mindful. You have to be present to notice positives. If you’re preoccupied while walking to work you may miss the blooming trees, the striking blue of the sky, or the pleasant breeze.
Finally, as I mentioned before, try to invest in a variety of activities that bring you joy. We don’t always have easy access to all five sources of happiness. The fatigue of an illness may keep us from accomplish much. The pain of an injury may make moments of pleasure harder to come by. The loss of a relationship may end that source of enjoyable activities and yet we have other relationships. By developing a rich diversity of types of activities we have a better chance of drawing on some other sources of joy.
I haven’t addressed depression in this piece. Depression clearly reduces our ability to experience joy. And yet behavior activation, a fancy term therapists use for doing just the sorts of activities discussed above, has been shown to be an effective tool in reducing the strength of depression’s grip.
Healing and Feeling
Rick Hanson, in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence suggests remembering the acronym HEAL. Heal stands for Have a Positive Experience, Enrich It, Absorb It, Link Positive and Negative Material. The first three sound very much like what has already been discussed. The final point, however, is somewhat new. Hanson suggests we are hardwired to latch onto negative information as a protective strategy–a survival mechanism is you will. By consciously adding a positive thought whenever we have a negative experience helps combat this tendency.
We need to acknowledge the painful realities in our life. But as I have often suggested to clients, feel the feeling, but don’t feed the feeling.
I am not suggesting in all of this that we attempt to control our feelings. But how we act and how mindful we stay can be powerful factors in experiencing good moments, good days and–ultimately–a good life. Building joy is one tool in doing just that.
Mark Carlson-Ghost, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist
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