The Power of Joy in Difficult Times

By Alexandra Frost

The past few years have been some of our most challenging—and for many of us, the most challenging. We’ve been focused on surviving a pandemic—physically, emotionally, and financially. We’ve also been managing the emotions that come with social and political conflict here and in other countries, the climate crisis, and more. At times it has felt like every day brought more bad news. Given all that, it might seem silly to think about making time for joy. But the fact is that finding joy is one of the most powerful ways we can survive—and even thrive—in times like this. 

The dictionary defines joy as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” We all experience it in different ways at different times. Joy might look like laughter, gratitude, fun, connection, peacefulness or even solitude. “We’re talking about that feeling of lightness that we physically feel and then mentally feel,” says Anjali Ferguson, PhD, a culturally responsive clinical psychologist who works with families in Richmond, Virginia. “When we experience happiness, it physically changes what is happening in our bodies and can really improve our mental health.”

What Joy Does in our Minds and Bodies

When we do things that feel good to us, like socializing or exercising, it “triggers the pleasure centers of our brain,” says Ferguson, and then our bodies pump out brain chemicals (like serotonin and dopamine) that make us feel good. At the same time, joy lowers stress hormones and “tells our body to kind of calm down.”

Laughter—which often goes hand in hand with joy—can give us a big boost physically and emotionally. Smiling and laughing can actually reduce physical pain and relax muscles. People who participated in a 2020 study answered survey questions throughout the day about how often and how hard they laughed, whether they went through any stressful events, and how they reacted to them. The more often people laughed, the fewer symptoms of stress they had. Interestingly, how hard they laughed didn’t make a difference. 

Because laughing appears to be so good for us and is an inexpensive way to improve mental health, experts are now researching laughter therapy to see exactly how it can help manage conditions like depression and anxiety.

Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, director of the positive emotions and psychophysiology laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has found that positive emotions like joy help us think more creatively, bounce back from negative emotions and thoughts, and generally improve our emotional well-being. Of course, that sounds like something you don’t need research to know. Joy kind of equals feeling good, right? But what Frederickson has found is that small spurts of positive emotions here and there can do all these powerful things. Which is good, because who is joyful all the time?

Being Joyful All the Time is Not the Goal

“Having good mental health is about an ability to flow with a number of emotions as they flow through you,” says Janis Whitlock, PhD, director of Cornell University’s research program on self injury and recovery and JED senior advisor. She compares it to a yoga class, where the goal is not to hold the posture perfectly the whole time, but to learn how to get back into it after falling out or needing a rest. 

In fact, it’s not our brain’s job to be happy all the time. Our brain’s main priority is to ensure we grow, survive, and reproduce. That’s why our brains tend to focus on negative emotions like fear. Feeling fear when we are in actual danger keeps us alive.

Looking for Joy in Tough Times

The past few years have been filled with a lot of fear, so having a tough time right now, “is a normal human response to an extraordinary moment,” says Whitlock. “It would be tone deaf to not acknowledge how much more difficult the pursuit of joy, and mental health in general, is right now.” More than that, understanding and expressing what has been—or continues to be—hard is a part of taking care of your mental health. “In order to move to a state of joy or to experience it at times throughout each day, we first need to validate what is hard,” says Whitlock.

Science also suggests that you can get some of the benefits of joy even when you don’t feel very joyful. A study published over a decade ago, but still referenced by psychologists including Whitlock, found that our bodies don’t know the difference between a fake and a real smile. Researchers had participants hold sticks in their mouths that held their lips in the shape of a smile and then compared their stress responses to people who were smiling genuinely. Turns out, even those making a “fake” smile had lower heart rates (suggesting they were less stressed) during stressful moments. Frederickson’s research has also shown that “if you look at something uplifting or funny it can have immediate positive benefits, even if you’re not in the mood for humor,” says Whitlock. “Actively seeking out positive emotions really helps.” 

Making time for joy will have a big difference in your overall well-being, and, says Whitlock, “it is totally possible even in these hard times.”

To learn how, check out 4 Steps to Adding Joy to Your Life

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