Joy is an emotion experienced by many but understood by few. It’s usually mistaken for happiness, yet is unique in its impact on both our mind and body.
Joy is not just a mere fleeting emotion – it triggers a host of significant physiological and psychological changes that can improve our physical and mental health. And, luckily for us, there are many easy things we can do each day in order to boost the amount we feel.
Joy is very different from our other emotions. It relates to accomplishing something we’ve wanted for a long time – the outcome of which exceeds our expectations.
Joy often refers to a broad sense of being satisfied with life that appears after experiencing a sense of awe or wonder. Many of us might better associate it with feeling “blessed”. While joy is experienced naturally, happiness is often pursued.
Even the way we express joy is different from our other emotions. The smile it produces is different from how we might smile when we’re happy.
Joy creates what’s known as a Duchenne smile – an involuntary, genuine smile that reaches our eyes. This type of smile is associated with a range of benefits, such as improvements in physical health, better recovery after illness, and stronger bonds with others.
Joy also triggers a series of changes in our body.
When joyous, our breathing becomes faster, our heartbeat increases, and our chest and entire body feel warmer. These sensations are caused by the release of adrenaline that makes our body prepared for engagement and movement, making us feel more mentally prepared to take on life’s challenges. These physiological changes are also associated with improved mood.
In the brain, joy triggers activity in several pleasure-related hot spots that are distributed throughout the brain. The sensation of joy is then spread to other parts of the central nervous system through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
There are many different types of neurotransmitter – but usually the neurotransmitters dopamine (which is associated with pleasure), serotonin, noradrenaline and endorphins (the body’s natural opiates) are released when we feel joy.
Interestingly, joy is both a trait and a state. This means that while some of us only experience it as a result of a joyful situation, others have a capacity for it – meaning they’re able to experience joy regardless of whether they’ve encountered something joyful.
Some research suggests that this capacity is genetic, with estimates that approximately 30% of people have what’s known as “genetic plasticity”. This means they’re disproportionately influenced by their external environment – and, after learning techniques to induce joy, may find it easier to experience it. As such, their genetic predisposition for positive experiences can result in more joy.
But just because some people may find it easier to experience joy, that doesn’t mean there aren’t easy things we can all do to help boost our experience of it.
Sharing food with others can help us experience more joy – and this isn’t just because being in the company of others boosts our experience of joy. The very act of sharing food can also spark it. This is why research shows that eating with others can enhance what’s known as psychological flourishing – the highest level of wellbeing.
Preparing food with friends and family can also stimulate joy. So if you’re looking to add a bit more to your daily life, perhaps go out for dinner with friends – or better yet, arrange a dinner party where you all prep the meal together.
2. Physical activity
Whether or not we actually experience joy while exercising depends a lot on the circumstances surrounding the physical activity, rather than the activity itself.
For example, when running with others, we tend to experience more joy than when running on our own.
Research also shows that accomplishing an exercise-related goal we never thought we were capable of can lead to joy.
If you want to use exercise to get more joy in your life, try to set yourself a challenge you want to achieve – and team up with friends on your journey to achieving it.
Another simple way you can boost feelings of joy is by writing down how you feel.
In one experiment, participants who spent 20 minutes a day writing about intense positive experiences – such as the joy of seeing a family member returning home, or watching your child walk for the first time – for three months experienced better moods compared with participants who wrote about different topics. Those who wrote about their positive experiences also made fewer visits to their doctor in the three-month period.
Although the original experiment aimed to re-experience intense positive emotions (such as awe, inspiration or love), you can choose instead to focus solely on feelings of joy.
However, while joy is wonderful to experience, it isn’t the only emotion we’ll encounter in our life. It’s important to try and embrace all the emotions we experience – be that sadness, anger, happiness or joy.
Jolanta Burke is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology and Health, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences.