We can choose joy. Joy is innate in every one of us and we can train our minds and attention to develop this seed potential.
Often, our attention quickly and easily focuses on problems, flaws, the lack in our lives, and things to worry about. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. says, “Because negative experiences have generally had more impact on survival than positive ones, the brain has evolved to register them more readily. There is a negativity bias to the brain. The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.” Neuroscience research is showing us that we can change this circuitry and, thus, greatly improve our lives.
Cultivating joy doesn’t mean denying the difficulties of life. It’s important to embrace both the shadow and light aspects of our nature. Grieving over losses, remembering painful events, and acknowledging hardship is part of being human. We need to allow for the full range of human expression. Because the brain’s tendency, though, is to look for and expect bad news, it can serve us to intentionally strengthen the “joy muscle.” A simple action that we can take is to repeatedly choose to place our attention on joy and well-being. These actions add up over time and can result in significant changes in the brain.
Here are some suggestions for developing a habit of joy:
Decide to experience more joy in your life. Even if you don’t yet know exactly how or when this will happen, affirm that it’s important to you and that you intend to do what’s necessary to cultivate this quality of your being.
Notice and take in the good. When you go for a walk, drive anywhere, or have lunch with a friend, pay attention to any experiences of joy, beauty, and well being both within you and in your environment. When you delight in seeing a cat stretch in a patch of sun, experience a sense of deep peace in your solar plexus, or bite into a juicy peach, pause and savor these peak moments. Take 10-20 seconds to let them register in your whole bodymind. Many of these small miracles occur every day, and the more you notice them, the happier you will become.
Evoke images, sounds, or kinesthetic experiences in your imagination that represent joy to you. Next time you need a joy boost, visualize a field of sunflowers, remember the touch of someone you love, or imagine you’re at the beach enjoying the sound of waves breaking against the shore. Imagery comes close to being as stimulating to the brain as an actual experience.
Cultivating a habit of joy takes commitment, practice, and patience. You can trust, though, that inclining toward joy will eventually become automatic because you are literally creating new neural structures in your brain through intentionally developing this capacity. Enjoy the process and the life-changing results!