Finding an internal sense of well-being and contentment in the context of external circumstances can be challenging. Sometimes it’s easier to tap into feelings of happiness, while other times it can feel hard to find joy anywhere. There are moments, or even long stretches, when joy seems out of reach, when it feels like we are barely hanging on. Over the course of the last year, so full of challenges and strain, many folks have found happiness more fleeting. While it is undeniably true that there are ups and downs to life, the more resilience we’ve built to adapt to these times, the more we’ll thrive. One strategy that can help to exercise our adaptability “muscles” and foster happiness is the practice of building joy into our lives. Being intentional about noticing, soaking up, and fostering the experiences that bring us joy wires our brains to feel more contentment. At this one year mark of the pandemic, as spring begins to announce itself and life starts to feel a little more “normal”, cultivating opportunities for joy may help our transition out of a time of crisis.
This process depends on regular practice, just like the building of any skill. Remember learning to ride a bike? It didn’t just happen, right? You learned a series of skills, got on the bike and practiced, practiced, practiced. You probably even experienced a few setbacks along the way (like skinned knees). Or consider learning to cook a new and challenging recipe. You find a recipe that speaks to you, gather the ingredients, and plan a time to prepare it. You identify resources to teach yourself the techniques involved; you might need to brush up on your knife skills, or enhance your spice cabinet. Then you chop, sauté, stir, bake….whatever actions are required to make the recipe you’ve chosen. You might need to make it many times for it to become ingrained and feel natural. Maybe you absolutely love it and this new dish becomes a staple source of good eating in your home. Or perhaps you don’t really resonate with the recipe and you find another to try, still using the skills you’ve gained. Learning to enhance contentment and happiness is a similar process. It requires skill building and practice before it becomes a habitual part of your life.
You may be thinking this all sounds great, but isn’t it selfish to focus that much on our own happiness? Consider these counter arguments to that all too human tendency to care for others and forget to offer the same kindnesses to ourselves. First and foremost, we are precious humans who deserve to experience life’s most pleasurable moments; we each have our own unique, inherent value, and our joy is a worthy goal! Yet if that wasn’t enough reason, when we are happier we are more likely to share that positive energy with those around us; this creates a ripple effect encouraging others to live within their own joy.
Over the next weeks we’ll highlight some different strategies to spark joy in our lives through simple daily steps. If you’d like to take this journey, select a few actions that sound appealing and practice them in the coming days. Then notice how you feel when you do. As each new list appears, look for the ones that speak to you. You have a greater likelihood of practicing these actions if they really resonate!
Intrigued? Here are some excellent resources to learn more about what it means to build happiness:
The Science of Well-Being, Coursera
A free 19-hour course by Professor Laurie Santos, based on the most popular
course at Yale University
The Science of Happiness by Psychologist Dachner Keltner
Podcast hosted by UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center with 86 and counting
episodes on a variety of topics related to key happiness skills
2. The Happiness Lab by Dr. Laurie Santos
Several seasons of podcast episodes that focus on well-being
3. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and
Confidence by Rick Hanson, PhD
An easy read of a book that explains the science behind our ability to wire a
new response by our brain, and how to apply simple life steps to achieve an
increase in happiness
If you’d rather skip the reading and start practicing straight away, try some of the following approaches to sparking joy in your life.
1.) Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and recall a time when you felt great joy. Really feel the way you felt in that moment.
2.) Discuss a happy memory with someone who shares it with you.
3.) Practice a guided meditation that focuses on the feeling of joy, lovingkindness, or finding your bliss. These types of meditations help us imagine scenarios in which we feel great joy or contentment. You can find many free meditations on apps, podcasts, and YouTube.
4.) Write a list of some of the best things that have happened in your life or to those you love. Refer to it often.
5.) Make plans for something you are looking forward to. It can be something small (the first time I can invite my friends over for a party in my new apartment) or something large (that dream vacation you’ve been saving for). Write out your plans in detail. Do what you can now to get ready. Spend some time imagining what it will be like and letting the anticipation fill you with joy.
6.) Look at old photos, videos, letters, and mementos. Relive the feelings of happiness they bring. Share a story about one with a loved person.
7.) Try your hand at making a vision board. Attach photos, inspirational quotes, images from magazines, and small objects that demonstrate the energy and intentions you have for your life. Put your dreams out there and see what comes back to you.
8.) Smile and laugh. Recall things that have helped you tune into humor- a comedy movie, jokes, funny memes, a friend who always cracks you up. Tap these experiences to practice smiling and laughing even when you don’t exactly feel like it. When we do this, our brain interprets that we are happy and can actually lift our mood.
These strategies for reviewing past joys and anticipating coming pleasures may create an energy that helps you feel a little happier in this moment, today! Ready, set… spark joy!
Danica Delgado, LCSW