Choosing Joy

Updated on
April 14, 2024

By Lauren Holt

Joy is like happiness, right? Well, not quite.

So what’s the difference? And why isn’t happiness enough? 

Good questions. The main difference between joy and happiness is that joy is the warm and fuzzy feeling you get inside, while happiness is what you see on the outside. 

Seeking and unlocking joy is something you may have more control over than you think.

Taking Note of the Good Stuff

What brings you joy? Not positivity or an all around good day, but the real, authentic joy you want to bundle up and keep in your pocket forever. Maybe it was the sense of accomplishment you felt buying your first house, or singing along to your favorite song along with 38,000 other people on the lawn, or finally booking that bucket list trip.

I know several things that bring me joy: ice cream (obviously), holidays, staying up late around a campfire, achieving goals I set out to accomplish, giving gifts (even though I am really awkward at receiving gifts). But I’d also like to share a less obvious example…

It was January 1, 2020, and my husband and I were leaving the hospital with our two-day old daughter. I was visibly crying as we were being discharged—partially because we were thrilled to be parents and because I was physically terrified. My knuckles were white as I held tightly to the baby carrier. We were leaving with a 5-lb surprise baby who we were adopting, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. But boy was I joyful. 

In the midst of very obvious fear, there was still joy.

Joy can look different for everyone. When I asked my coworkers what the best days of their lives have been so far, the joy was palpable. They shared stories of success, achievement, but also some of the most fun and sentimental moments. Most notably, everyone shared experiences that involved connection with others (and hearing their stories was my favorite part of diving into this topic). 

How can we create more of those kinds of moments? Let’s look at some research.

How We Can Cultivate More Joy

From the Dalai Lama’s book, The Book of Joy, there are 8 key pillars 

  1. Perspective
  2. Humility
  3. Humor
  4. Acceptance
  5. Forgiveness
  6. Gratitude
  7. Compassion
  8. Generosity

There’s a great quote from this book: “We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot more that we as individuals can do.”

Marie Kondo showed all of us in 2019 how to declutter our homes by removing items that don’t spark joy. But when you aren’t talking about clothing, it’s not quite that simple. So how can we adjust our daily mindset, especially at work?

I’m not asking you to dig deep into your little Grinch-y hearts for things that won’t bring you true joy. Instead, what do you think motivates you to do your best work?

- Is it the satisfaction of a project you prepared for and fully understand?
- Learning a new skill?
- Crushing your goals?
- Making the sale?
- Or maybe simply just pushing yourself to understand someone else’s point of view?

Here are a few tips published by Harvard Medical Journal in October 2022:

- Increase physical activity: Get moving, and even better, get outside.

- Dedicate yourself to others: Try volunteering and giving back.

- Connect with your spiritual side: For example, meditation is a powerful way to increase joy.

- Try something new: As humans, we are hard-wired to experience joy when experiencing novelty. Developing a new pursuit can help us refocus our energy.

- Limit negativity: Whether it's gossipy coworkers, a toxic relationship with a family member, or a complaining friend, spending time around a negative mindset influences us directly. It's okay to set limits.

- Pay attention to the good: A joyous mindset can be developed, but takes practice.

- (Mental) health is wealth!: Don’t be afraid to seek professional help.

The Brain Science

Although the neurobiology of joy is complex, there are a few neurotransmitters that stand out in promoting positive feelings: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. The good news is that many changes to our lives can increase these levels. For example, running may produce a "runner's high" and spending time with a baby releases oxytocin—the "cuddle hormone" that makes you feel connected.

The effects of neurotransmitters on the body are broad, from relaxing your muscles to speeding up your heart rate, but they may result in a final common pathway of promoting positive feelings. Whether it's finding a sense of purpose or enjoying supportive relationships, the benefits on the mind and body are far-reaching.

A Few Pocket-sized Final Thoughts

Find joy in the big things. Be silly, explore, and expand your world.

Find joy in the little things. Don’t forget about the small details. 

Above all, remember that a person may seek happiness, but you get to choose your own joy.

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