4 Steps to Adding Joy to Your Life

By Alexandra Frost

Whether it comes from sharing an inside joke with your closest friends, or doing an activity you love, joy is a state of being most of us could use more of, especially right now. Joy—and the positive emotions that come with it—can improve your mental health, lower stress, and help you feel calm. Laughter in particular is a great way to help your brain pump out feel-good chemicals and lower stress-causing ones. The best news is you don’t have to feel joyful all the time (who does?). Feeling spurts of joy here and there can lessen the impact of negative thoughts and emotions, help us think more creatively, and feel better overall.

Here’s how to look for and find joy.

Step One: Check in With the Harder Things

“You can’t just ignore the really hard things that are going on in ourselves, and in our world,” says Janis Whitlock, PhD, director of Cornell University’s research program on self injury and recovery. “This is a hard time. If you’re not feeling happy, it’s not even that you’re not alone in that—it’s a normal human response to an extraordinary moment.” And, Whitlock says, you need to let yourself feel the difficult emotions before you can “move to a state of joy or feel it at times throughout your day.”

“Just acknowledging the obstacles you are going through will help on your journey toward joy,” says Whitlock. It also protects you from “toxic positivity” (you know, those “choose joy!” memes), which tries to use positive thinking to steamroll over the difficult, but perfectly natural, emotions we all have.

Step Two: Create a Joy Menu

Ever been to a restaurant with a menu so long it overwhelms you and makes it hard to pick something to eat? The same goes for happiness. There’s actually good research that shows that “too many choices make us less happy, not more,” says Whitlock.

So she has created a joy menu of no more than 10 activities that make her feel good. Whenever Whitlock feels her stress or anxiety creeping up, she makes a plan to do one of her menu items every day for a few days. 

To create your menu, Whitlock suggests trying different things and watching for a small shift in your mental state, not a massive change. When you find the things that do that, add them to the menu and write it down.

Here are some ideas that Whitlock suggests based on her work with teens and young adults:

  • Connect with friends you can be yourself with.
  • Listen to a favorite song, band, or playlist.
  • Dance alone in your room or out with friends.
  • Make your favorite meal, or pick up a snack that you enjoy.
  • Spend time on a passion project that makes you feel like you are thriving or “doing good.”
  • Read an uplifting book or article.
  • Try meditation. (There are a lot of apps that can help you get started.)
  • Walk in nature or around your neighborhood.
  • Stream a funny or uplifting show.
  • Exercise.
  • Journal, or record your thoughts using audio or video. 
  • Color or do a craft or hobby you like.
  • Spend time with a pet.

If you’re having trouble brainstorming things to put on your joy menu, think back to activities that made you happy as a child and start there. 

Step Three: Think Small

Some of the happiest times in our lives come from big moments—a family wedding, a first concert, a special trip, or even a memorable afternoon laughing with friends. Those are all valid and life-changing experiences, but they aren’t necessarily the source of day-to-day joy, says Anjali Ferguson, PhD, a culturally responsive clinical psychologist who works with families in Richmond, Virginia. Big events like weddings don’t happen very often, vacations and concerts are expensive, sometimes it’s hard to get together with friends, or other obstacles get in the way.

But smaller moments are available at any given time, are often free, and can just as easily create joy. Ferguson recommends focusing on these. “Sit down and pay attention to one thing that made you happy today,” she says. “It could be really small, like ‘Oh, I had my favorite dessert with lunch today.’” Pausing to be mindful of tiny wins like this can inspire you to seek out more of them. Do it again, and before long you have a series of small joyful moments that—through your lifetime—make up your happiness.

Step Four: Protect and Share It

Once you’ve mastered this practice, you have to “protect it,” says Ferguson. That means seeking out, scheduling, and sharing moments of joy. “There’s a lot of science on how if we share our joy with somebody, it’s infectious, and other people become joyful,” says Ferguson. “It’s a really uplifting moment that can build community and we can be sustained by teaching others about it.”


You can find additional ways to create some joy for yourself at The BIG JOY Project from Mission: Joy and Greater Good in Action.

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