Attaining Joy: The Hidden Secrets

For decades, men and women alike have repeatedly asked the daunting question, “What is joy, how does one attain it and can it last, particularly during tumultuous times”?  Though it is true on average  that people are happier in societies where the government functions well and people feel they have a voice, it appears that joy does not depend on socio-economic conditions but more on a persons’ personality. Unlike happiness which may depend on a person’s outer circumstances and their perception of “the good life” which is fleeting, joy is found at a persons’ innermost essence. Joy may be viewed as a constant state of happiness that comes from within.  Some people erroneously think they can attain continual joy if only they were better looking, smarter, richer, or complete a myriad of self-improvement courses. Studies completed from the popular television show “Extreme Makeover” where a person’s perceived physical flaws are magically transformed by the world’s best plastic surgeons indicate that the participant’s level of joy had not increased at all once the temporary excitement of looking better had worn off.

What we know is that joy at its core goes deeper than momentary pleasures and is more wholly defined by a person’s engagement with life, love and meaning that serves some larger purpose. In contrast to joy, happiness is inherently subjective since it seems to occur most often when people are engaged in activities that absorb them fully such that they lose track of time and other worries they may have. These activities vary from person to person depending on their individual passions.  A great deal of research has been done on happiness but “joy” is probably the least studied emotion. Though the scientific research differs on what methods are the most effective to measure “joy”, there are some factors people have in common that self-report a sense of joy. If we observe “joyful” people we immediately notice that they don’t allow life’s ups and downs to influence them on a daily basis, do not dwell on their problems and there appears to be a quiet an peaceful core that emanates from them to everyone within close proximity to them.  People who are joyful smile a great deal, enjoy their own company and seem to live in the moment. They are almost always happy exactly where they are, doing what they are doing and not wishing that things were different.

Many of the great teachings unanimously embody the belief that all the peace and joy in the universe are already within us and that we don’t nee to strive for, develop, or attain them, but merely realize what is already there. It is said that we can’t feel contentment or joy without examining who we are and what we do.  Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist teacher and author of the books “The Wisdom of No Escape” and “Start Where You Are” states that “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves”.  She believes that the key to having joy is what she refers to as “developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves”.  CNN and Time covered a recent study done by University of Wisconsin Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry Richard Davidson that studied the brains of Buddhist monks in his Lab for Affective Neuroscience, including the Dalai Lama. Professor Davidson found that the monks level of happiness extended beyond the measurements on the charts previously developed by researchers. The research indicated that if a person sat quietly even for merely a half-hour contemplating thoughts of joy and kindness that their brains were biologically transformed in positive and measurable ways within two weeks. Davidson reached the conclusion that “joy can be thought of as a skill that when practiced with regularity can be learned in the same way one develops the skill of mastering a musical instrument.” In the book “Authentic Happiness”, Psychologist Martin Seligman delineates his findings on why some people experience joy while others do not. His research in partnership with University of Illinois Psychologist Edward Deiner, known as “Dr. Happiness” led to a new academic field called “Positive Psychology”. They developed tools such as the “Satisfaction of Life Scale” as well as a “General Happiness Questionnaire” which anyone can take free of charge at The research led them to conclude that neither education, I.Q.  youth, nor income raises a person’s satisfaction with life.  However, trait such as optimism, learning to forgive, a sense of community and close relationships, and an emphasis on positive emotions and gratitude are associated with both happiness and a sense of joy.  The findings reported In the Time Magazine (2005) article entitled “The New Science of Happiness” further conclude that there are numerous ways to attain more happiness and ultimately a deeper sense of joy in our lives. The recommendations to having a more satisfying life include:

Getting involved in acts of kindness toward others whether it’s helping a friend, visiting a nursing home, or finding other ways to make one’s life more meaningful.  

Begin a “Gratitude Journal” in which a person consciously counts their blessings and chronicles them in detail.  In a UC Riverside study where subjects wrote down things they were thankful for at least once a week, their overall satisfaction with life increased dramatically over a period of six weeks.

In another study, it was found that the single most effective way to increase a person’s joy was to make a “gratitude visit” to personally thank a teacher, pastor or someone else who they felt they owed a debt of gratitude to.

To develop proactive versus reactive strategies for dealing with stress and hardships.  People who experienced the most joy are resilient, humorous, compassionate, empathic and view adversity as just another challenge in life with the attitude of “this too shall pass”. They expect to find the “good” and/or lesson in every event.

Focus on and savor life’s precious moments and take what psychologists call a “mental photograph” of those moments to savor during difficult times.

Practice forgiveness by writing a mental note of forgiveness to a person who may have hurt you and then letting go of anger about the event. When people focus on revenge or resentment, they are investing precious energy that could be dedicated to savoring life’s joys.

Surrounding oneself with people who support and nurture you while empowering yourself and your own sense of joy to nurture in-kind is critical.

Attaining joy can be a fascinating and exhilarating path. As life weaves its precious moments together, we can have a great impact on how we perceive them. Consciously reframing events through a positive lens and taking proactive steps as we approach major crossroads can make the difference between a life of joy and one that is filled with pain and unhappiness.  Examining one’s choices and living with an “attitude of gratitude” can go a long way to a deeply fulfilling and meaningful journey.

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