By Elana Miller, MD
I’ll be honest. The word “joy” used to make me cringe.
For some reason, I associated this word with something… cheesy. “I don’t have time for joy,” I thought. “I’ve got important things to do.”
Until a few months ago, when as part of my meditation practice, I signed up for a class called “Opening to Joy.” I didn’t like the title, but the class “Working With Difficult Emotions” didn’t fit my schedule as much as the joy class.
So over the next six weeks, I found myself with a group of 15 other individuals, trying to cultivate joy in my daily life. The experience was transformative.
What I learned is that happiness and joy, like anything else, can be practiced. For many reasons we close ourselves off to the possibility of joy. We think we’re too busy, or that it’s stupid, or that we don’t deserve it.
It’s not realistic to be happy all the time. As human beings, we are subject to ups and downs that are as intrinsic to life as breathing. True joy, though, emerges independent of life circumstances. It is the radical willingness to find contentment with things as they are.
Why is it hard to be joyful?
When I started the meditation class, I found myself with a myriad of excuses as to why I couldn’t be joyful:
“I’m too busy”
“This is lame”
“There’s too much stress in my life right now”
“I’m buried under responsibilities and obligations”
“There’s something wrong with me and I don’t deserve it”
Unfortunately, we are hard-wired to attend more vigorously to negative experiences. Over our evolutionary history, for survival reasons, it was more important to notice potentially dangerous stimuli than to notice and appreciate all the positive things in our lives.
When it comes to negative experiences, we have a “velcro mind.” Even if only one bad thing happens in our day, we grab onto it and don’t let go.
With positive experiences, we have “teflon mind.” They bounce right off of us before we even know what happened.
How to commit to a joy intention and daily joy practice
We need to be fastidious in our pursuit of cultivating joy. Set an intention that you will begin to open yourself to joy, and remind yourself of this intention daily.
I used the phrase, “May I open to the possibility of joy.” I wrote it on an index card and posted it on my refrigerator. Every morning as I went to get milk for my cereal, there it was, staring me in the face.
Here are some other phrases you can use:
“May I be filled with joy”
“May I one day be filled with joy”
“May I have the possibility of joy”
“May I know that joy is one day possible”
Chose one of these phrases that most resonates with you. If you meditate, commit five minutes a day of your meditation practice to repeating your joy phrase. If you don’t meditate, consider starting, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day.
Do you notice joy?
Opening to joy is not about inventing a feeling that isn’t there. Rather, the problem is that joy is all around us, but we fail to notice it.
Make a disciplined effort to notice joy around you. Keep a journal of the joyful things you experience over the course of a day, no matter how small. “Saw hummingbird in garden,” or “Driver let me change lanes on the freeway.”
Even better, get a joy buddy and send each other shorts texts or emails when you have joyful experiences. Not only will you get in the habit of noticing these things, but you’ll get to experience the joy of your buddy as he or she shares their experiences with you.
How to develop support practices
Find time in your day to do things you enjoy and that give you pleasure. I spend a lot of time in my car, and prior to the meditation class I would always listen to talk radio (NPR). Talk radio, though, is at best interesting, and at worst, depressing. So I decided to start listening to music instead of talk radio.
What a difference this small change made! Suddenly I found myself overcome with the urge to sing and dance in my car, much to the amusement of drivers around me, I’m sure.
Find a support practice that resonates with you, and do it daily. Listen to music, garden, exercise, or whatever else you enjoy.
The magic of appreciative joy
Appreciative joy, or sympathetic joy, is the feeling of joy we experience when something good happens to another person. It is a wonderful antidote to jealousy, competitiveness, or envy. It is a skill that can be developed.
Start with a person who is easy for you to be joyful for, and when you feel ready, move on to a person who is neutral, and then to a person who is difficult for you.
Imagine the person in your mind and repeat one of these phrases:
“May your happiness and good fortune continue”
“May your happiness and good fortune grow and grow”
“I am happy for you!”
When you learn how to be joyful for other people, it opens up a whole other dimension of happiness in your life.
How to practice gratitude
Over the course of the meditation class, I realized that feelings of business, ambition, and self-dissatisfaction had been getting in the way of me appreciating what was right under my nose for a long, long time. This happens to a lot of us.
Make an effort to notice and be grateful for the good things in your life. Practice gratitude diligently. Here are a few exercises you can use:
- Make a list of 5-10 things a day that you are grateful for.
- Every morning think of one thing you are grateful for, trying not to repeat anything you’ve thought of before.
- Before meals, take a moment to pause and reflect on what you’re grateful for.
- After you complain, add “… any my life is really very blessed.”
Over the course of the meditation class these simple practices had a profound effect on me. I was confronted with the reality that joy is not something that happens or doesn’t happen to us, but something that we choose to experience.
A few weeks after the class ended, without the support of our regular meetings, I found myself slacking on the practices, and noticed the good feelings I had cultivated starting to slip away.
So I recommitted to joy. I put the index card back up, changed the radio to music, and started journaling my daily joyful experiences again. Joy is not something we can choose just once – we have to choose it again and again, every day.
What about you?
What practices or activities could you do to cultivate joy in everyday life? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author
Elana Miller, MD writes at Zen Psychiatry about integrative strategies to be happy, live well, and fulfill your greatest potential. For more tips and articles about living a joyful life, sign up for her free newsletter.