Joy is an unexpected gift – a surprise visitor bringing lightheartedness or laughter, feelings of unity and harmony, delighting the senses, and liberating us from ordinary self-limitations and expectations. A dedicated practice of mindfulness can help us learn to roll out the welcome mat for joy and invite it in for longer stays, promoting both personal well-being and collective flourishing.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines joy as a feeling of ”gladness, delight, or exaltation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction”. It has been more simply defined as “a positive affective response to an objective external good”, unsolicited and unearned, and made up of feelings, perceptions, and judgments (Theology of Joy & the Good Life , 2018).
Joy is a complex emotion. It can be excited and intense, activating the the dopaminergic system underlying our drives and urges (Richardson, et. al, 2016). Joy can also be more passive and serene, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and promoting feelings of harmony, unity, peace and calm. Joy is different from happiness in that it can coexist with difficult emotions, such as grief or pain (Aragon, 2017). Theologian Willie James Jennings called it “an act of resistance against despair”.
Researchers are finding that joy comes with many benefits. It provides all of the same improvements in well-being as other pleasant emotions, such as decreased stress and blood pressure, better immune functioning, and even increased longevity. When joy includes laughter, it may accompany decreased perceptions of pain, improve cardiovascular health, promote muscle relaxation, and reduce anxiety. Plus, joy promotes playfulness, and openness to new possibilities, which in turn promotes learning and the acquisition of new skills.
Phenomenologically, joy feels bright and light. Colors seem more vivid. Physical movements become more fluid. Smiles become difficult to suppress. Joy broadens people’s attention and thinking. – Matthew Kuan Johnson
Fortunately, openness to joy is a skill that can be trained. Learning to be mindful of the good things in life, rather than falling into the human negativity bias of over-focusing on the bad, can help rewire our brains for happiness. Research indicates people who score higher in gratitude tend to also be more joyful (Watkins, et. al, 2018).
Joy is contagious and better when shared. Research indicates that telling people about your good fortune brings greater rewards than keeping it to yourself. When we witness others’ good fortune, the brain’s reward system is activated, resulting in states of mind associated with greater life satisfaction, peace, happiness, trust, support, and satisfaction in close relationships.
All who joy would win must share it. Happiness was born a Twin. – Lord Byron
There are many opportunities for joy, even amidst difficult life circumstances. There are simple pleasures to savor, moments of laughter and play, small acts of service that bring meaning and purpose, time spent in nature or prayer connecting us to something bigger, experiences of wonder, curiosity, awe or surprise, loving and being loved – all can trigger joy. But, we have to be open and available to experiencing it. This is one of the ways cultivating the attitudes and practices of mindfulness can be of enormous benefit.
The Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness and the Mindful Kansas City initiative \sponsored a FREE and joyful virtual event in June 2022 called the Joy of Mindfulness Summit that united some of Kansas City’s most experienced mindfulness teachers to offer unique, guided mindfulness practices for adults and children designed to increase and deepen experiences of joy, wonder and awe. Some of these practices are available to our members through our Punchpass class registration system.
Aragón, O R (2017). “Tears of joy” and “tears and joy?” personal accounts of dimorphous and mixed expressions of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 41(3), 370–392.
Richardson, M., McEwan, K., Maratos, F., & Sheffield, D. (2016). Joy and calm: How an evolutionary functional model of affect regulation informs positive emotions in nature. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 2(4), 308–320.
Johnson, M K (2020). Joy: a review of the literature and suggestions for future directions. The Journal of Positive Psychology,15:1, 5-24.
Pressman, S. D., Jenkins, B. N., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2019). Positive affect and health: what do we know and where next should we go? Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 627-650.
Watkins, P. C., et. al. (2018). Joy is a distinct positive emotion: Assessment of joy and relationship to gratitude and well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(5), 522–539.