March 30th, 2023

Cultivating Joy

Do you ever get caught up in the negative news cycle? Feel overwhelmed by the many different crisis of modern life? Struggling to cope after finishing a really good show (this is not the same level as the other examples, but still)? We all get down. Sometimes we can be tempted to lean into that feeling, and really stay down. One of the things that I personally have had to work on is being intentional in making space for happiness, and actually going out of my way to force some happiness into my life. So, today we’re going to talk about how to do that, and what some of the benefits of cultivating joy can be.

One of my most common metaphors I use for mental health is comparing it to gardening, so when I talk about “cultivating” joy that’s a very specific word choice. Cultivating implies that there is a whole process to this. Cultivating means that we plant a seed in a healthy environment, we then give that seed the nutrients and whatnot that it needs to grow, we weed around the seed so it doesn’t get choked out by bad stuff, and we have ongoing maintenance in order to eventually reap a harvest. That’s a lot of steps I summarize with just one word, but that’s why cultivating joy seems like the right wording. In order to have consistent joy in our life, we need to find a healthy space to plant it, so it has the opportunity to grow. We need to nourish that space and that joy, so it can grow into something larger and more pervasive in our life. We need to do some weeding in other areas of our lives to keep negativity from choking out our joyful space, and we ultimately need to keep up the maintenance so that our joy grows and is fruitful enough that we get our fill and potentially even have enough to share with others. It’s work, and it’s a process rather than a singular event. I also like the word joy instead of happiness. I think our society promotes happiness as some sort of goal, but happiness is very specifically a fleeting emotion, it’s a feeling here one moment and gone the next. Joy is more than just happy, but isn’t maybe as long-lasting as contentment. Semantics, I know, but language matters, and I think this builds out a nice picture that creates a more realistic expectation of what “cultivating joy” can look like. 

So, I pontificated about words for long enough, how do we actually go about cultivating joy? First things first, create space. Literal physical space, and also space in your schedule. That often is the sticking point for people, needing to carve time out in their schedule. I find for many couples I work with, scheduling time consistently is the only way they can make it work. The odds of a schedule just matching up is slim to none, so signing up for something that happens weekly actually means more time and more consistency. The example I use is a sports league, but it can be bar trivia, really anything that happens at regular intervals. If you don’t get joy from something like that, it really just becomes a task for you to make sure you prioritize the joyful activities as they present themselves in your schedule. Maybe it’s going out for a nice dinner, seeing a movie, or taking in a live performance. Once the joyous space exists, we need to focus on nourishing the joy. Maybe that means reliving it or talking about it with members of the community who also enjoy the same things, maybe it’s a  simple gratitude practice about the joyful experience, but something to highlight, honor, and get more benefit from the joy. Our brains drop little boosts of feel-good drugs even with just remembering a positive experience, so it’s good to get in the habit of that, in addition to looking forward to the next time that joyous event or activity will come around. Now we’re cooking with gas, and we have joyful space and we’re nourishing it, we need to maintain that while fighting off the stress and negativity in other areas of our life, and we need to avoid the trap of cutting our joy back when our schedule gets tight or our stress goes way up. Paradoxically, I often see joyful or recreational activities get cut from our schedules first when life takes a turn, but joy is even more important in our lives when the times get tough. If you make it this far, in theory your brain will want to fight for keeping this joy, but a reminder that maintenance is part of nearly every healthy habit, so this step is just noting that there’s work to keep the good stuff going good, it doesn’t just happen by accident. 

I think this is really an important skill, especially as it’s easy in our fast-paced society to get overwhelmed or sucked into the negative news cycle. Nature is awesome, so are pets and kids, and there’s so much awesome stuff we miss when we’re just hyperfocused on the doom and gloom of society’s many problems. Find your joy. Nourish it. Protect it. And let it give you sustenance to get through all the not joyful parts of life.