Cultivate Joy to Improve Well-being

How is joy different from happiness? And, more importantly, how can creating joyful experiences increase lifespan?

The study of happiness has been a favorite topic in the scientific community for decades and longitudinal psychological studies have concluded that positive feelings such as happiness, gratitude, life satisfaction, and contentment are indicators of a long and healthy life. While happiness is the term we most commonly see in the media, research has pointed out that it is joy—shown to be distinct from other positive emotions such as happiness—that may actually be the golden ticket to living longer and better.

While happiness is transitory and can be solicited from short-term external stimuli, such as a TV series or a tasty meal, joy is generated from situations that pertain to our sense of meaning, goals, and desires in life. In other words, joy is our response to what we consider “good.” The emotion can arise when we attain something we’ve longed and hoped for or have worked hard to attain, such as admission to a Master’s program or reaching a new personal best record. When a situation reunites us with something we deem as meaningful, steady, and comforting, the feeling sparked is joy. For example, a reunion with a loved one you haven’t seen in a while or having a heart-to-heart with a spouse, parent, or friend. Joy can lead to increased happiness in life, but the feeling has deeper and more long-lasting roots than happiness itself.

The Harvard longitudinal study on adult development identified social relationships as the key to positive emotions and longevity. Human connection is fundamental to our survival, as discovered by Barbara Fredrickson in researching the utility of positive emotions. Positive emotions broaden our visual field and have a pro-social action response, which allows us to create human connection, community, and a sense of belonging. When we connect with a deeper sense of meaning in our lives and contribute to creating community that aligns with what is important in our lives, we experience a deeper sense of joy.

Many studies aim to understand human development, ability to overcome change, and how we deal with challenges. What is common throughout is the inner resilience and capacity that comes from positive emotions – the connection with our sense of purpose, our contribution to relationships, meaningful work, and positive impact. There is much to appreciate in getting granular around understanding all emotions, but by focusing on our contributions and learning, we move away from chasing external happiness and towards a deeper feeling of joy.

While happiness can create a temporary positive emotion, joy is proven to create long-lasting well-being.

A number of studies have examined the relationship between longevity and various factors that affect lifespan, such as socioeconomic status or physiological elements. Across these studies runs the importance of strong relationships. The Harvard Study of Adult Development followed a large cohort of adults and some of their descendants, for 85 years, documenting a myriad of influences throughout their successes and failures. The study found that while physical health is not to be ignored, those who had strong and satisfied personal relationships were on the path to the longest lives. As joy can be derived from the feeling of connection – or reconnection – with ourselves and others, the participants who felt strongly bonded with their loved ones showed greater signs of health and vitality than participants who reported having weaker relationships. Indeed, Robert Waldinger, the director of the study, noted in his TED Talk that “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.”

Since joy can have such a positive impact on our performance, overall health and lifespan, how can we spark it on a day-by-day basis? There are plenty of ways to find joyful moments in your day and by doing so improve your long-term well-being. Here are some research-backed suggestions to cultivate joy and reap major health benefits:

1. Foster relationships

Deep connection and support are fundamental to a joyful life, and one way to cultivate relationships is by bonding over shared hobbies or interests. If you and a friend are film fanatics, go to the cinema together and talk about it over coffee or dinner afterwards. Find someone to go on a hike or call a relative who lives far away, tell stories and catch up. Relationships in the workplace can also contribute to our feelings of connection and community, so get to know a colleague. Meeting with people in-person can be particularly joy-sparking. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that highs and lows exist in every relationship – but there are always opportunities to strengthen your bond by showing vulnerability and talking openly.

2. Practice gratitude

Gratitude has long been considered an integral part of joy. Carving out time to reflect on and define what you are grateful for can induce feelings of trust and appreciation. A “gratitude practice” works best as a daily habit and the routine helps you identify those reoccurring themes that spark joy in your life. For example, you might notice personal contentment when in nature, cooking a meal, talking with close friends, or reading a book. The next step is to integrate these activities in your day-to-day activities. Taking time to reflect on, even write down, the moments that bring you joy and gratitude can be an incredibly powerful practice that allows you to nurture satisfaction from within.

3. Let go and laugh

One of the most stress-busting activities you can engage in is laughter. Studies have shown that  laughter can lower stress hormones, boost the immune system, decrease inflammation, and increase good cholesterol. Laughter is also a wonderful way to strengthen those social connections. Notice your own patterns of laughter— and with whom you can always find something to crack up with— or even keep a laughter journal and jot down funny moments.

4. Limit social media

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Nowadays, social media is a one of the main indices of self-worth, but not always in a positive way. Research shows that a scroll through social media highlights other people’s lives in a way that can incite feelings of loneliness and depression, and often triggers unhealthy comparisons. Alternatively, some research has suggested that using social media to actively connect and communicate with family and friends (versus passively scrolling) can positively impact well-being. So, if you notice yourself feeling down after being on social media, it may your cue to unfollow certain accounts and use the platforms in a more intentional way.

Creating joyful moments can strengthen social ties, reinforce what brings you peace, and lead to an overall happier and healthier life – years of scientific study have proven it. Spark joy by spending time with people you feel most connected to in life. Notice the little moments when you are at peace and make an effort to recreate them, sprinkling simple pleasures into your daily life.

Ultimately, while happiness can create a temporary positive emotion, joy is proven to create long-lasting well-being and many additional health benefits. Try to seek out joyful experiences in your daily life and cultivate more joy within yourself and others – and marvel at the positive impact it can have.


© IE Insights.



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