When was the last time you experienced joy?
To answer the question it helps to remember what joy feels like in your body. Like all other emotions, joy has its own unique biological signature. We memorize emotions in our bodies. With those emotions we experience less often, we may have to work a little harder to recall how they felt. Maybe you’re asking – what does joy feel like to me? Try it. Recall the last time you felt joyful and try to feel it again. No, that doesn’t feel like joy, it feels like excitement, or a thrill or amazement – but not joy. Joy’s one of those all in emotions. When you’re in, at least for a brief time, you’re not in your head, you’re feeling it with your whole body.
Joy can move you so quickly that a cascade of other emotions show up – happiness, delight, awe, wonder and even relief or sadness. Usually by the time sadness has arrived, you’ve engaged your mind in why can’t this feeling last forever thinking. But – back to joy.
Often joy is fleeting.
One night (a rather chilly one by California standards) I walked outside to the recycling bin (joy can appear in the most unglamorous places). In a hurry to get back into the warm house, I caught a glimpse of the sky – stopped and looked up. It was dazzlingly beautiful. Just thinking of it now fills me with well, – joy. All was quiet and still. I stood there for a few moments looking at the cloud formations layered in red and pink hues ahead of the impending dark. My next thought was how extraordinary it was to be alive and part of the universe. As it goes with feelings – this led to another feeling, one of gratitude for this speck of time – a sense of knowing I was part of this vast celestial majesty. Awe followed.
For many of us, joy’s reserved for the bigger events of life – weddings, births, landmark graduations, major achievements like finishing a marathon, passing a bar exam, getting a call that you’ve got the long-awaited job or your first book published. Some people recall feeling joyful at the first moment they saw the Grand Canyon or caught first glimpses of the Alps.
But joy’s often a surprise – a moment we’re taken off guard from our mental, emotional and physical routines (habits) “Joy is not just for the lucky few,” says James Baraz, founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. “It’s a choice anyone can make.”
Brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor shares her remarkable story (see her TED talk, one of the most popular ever given) of watching her own brain and body functions – motion, speech, self-awareness – shut down one by one after experiencing a stroke one morning. Her astonishing story chronicles her deterioration and recovery in amazing detail.
Jill’s story is especially compelling because she has expressed gratitude, not regret for her stroke. “It’s given me a whole new perspective on life. It’s made me an evangelist for a balanced brain. I want people to use both of their hemispheres. And I want them to recognize that they have more power over what’s going on between their ears than they ever had any idea. I think the more responsibility we take for what’s going on inside of our brains; the happier we are going to be. I am an advocate for joy.” While Jill Bolte Taylor’s story is one of great tenacity and courage, the “skills” she speaks of are available to most of us. If joy is a choice, how do we make it? According to psychotherapist Donald Altman, being in a state of joy isn’t something we’re born with. The author of The Joy Compass: 8 Ways to Find Lasting Happiness and Optimism in the Present Moment, says that finding joy is a learned skill.
Every day, we have to cultivate the emotions that we want to experience more of. This takes a commitment to conscious thought and awareness and of how we process the external events of our lives. Reactivity usually doesn’t nurture joy. There are eight abilities that we can learn to strengthen that can enable the flow of joy in our lives. When we focus our attention on and practice working with these skills, we actually change the neural structure of our brain – and consequently, our experience of the world. As James Baraz points out, “Any activity, when performed repetitively, changes the structure of the brain. But even imagining an activity has an impact on neural structure. Researchers at Harvard Medical School demonstrated this with an experiment where they asked one group to play a five-finger exercise on the piano over the course of a week. A comparison group was asked to merely imagine moving their fingers to play the same exercise. Though playing had a greater impact on the brain than imagining it, by the end of the week the same region of the brain for both groups had been significantly affected.”
8 Things That Enable More Joy in Your Life
Every moment you are present to life, joy’s got a better chance of sneaking up on you. Don’t miss it.
Thanks for reading.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
Join our mailing list and receive our monthly newsletter and occasional mailings!