Welcome Joy

Welcome Joy

What’s the spark and what’s the fuel?

The Practice:
Welcome joy.

Why?

Positive emotions – such as feelings of gratitude, love, and confidence – strengthen the immune system, protect the heart against loss and trauma, build relationships, increase resilience, and promote success. Based on studies that have already been done, if a drug company could patent a happiness pill, we’d be seeing ads for it every night on TV.

Technically, emotions can be organized along two dimensions: intensity (how strong they are) and hedonic valence (how good they feel). Tranquility, for example, has low intensity but can feel really really good, a profound inner peace.

Low intensity positive emotions are great. They’re the bread and butter of everyday well-being. This said, high intensity positive emotions have special benefits. They actually help lengthen the lifespan. They steady the mind and improve concentration by engaging steady and high levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, that stabilize the contents of working memory and block out distractions – perhaps a reason why “bliss” is recommended in Buddhist meditation training as a factor of non-ordinary states of consciousness and awakening altogether. And they can pull us out of the numbing, blahs, and meh-ness of ordinary routines, stresses, disappointments, and frustrations – sort of like that transition in the Wizard of Oz movie from black and white to color.

Intense positive emotions include delight, passion, rapture, thrill, triumph, head over heels in love, exuberance, elation, and rejoicing. In a word, joy.

Finding and protecting joy is worth doing at any time. And it’s especially important when you’re facing challenges at any scale, from worries about your child to alarm about your world (about the latter, see my recent post: Take Heart).

Joy is a reminder that you are not defeated in the sanctuary of your own mind. Sometimes joy comes with other feelings that actually add to it rather than diminishing it, such as a fierce joy, an exhausted joy, a grim joy, or a rebellious joy. Consider the joy in these lines from Dylan Thomas: “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

No matter what is happening in the world around us, no matter what situation we’re stuck in, no matter how anguished we are for others, no matter how hopeless it seems and helpless we feel – we can always turn to joy, claim it, and welcome it. A kind of triumph, a lighting of at least a single candle no matter the gathering darkness.

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How?

Of course, positive emotions are not about suppressing or covering over pain, anxiety, or outrage on behalf of others. Positive feelings can be present in the mind alongside negative ones. In fact, they help us cope with the hard things and hard feelings of life, and fuel us to keep on going for the sake of others. The worse a person’s life is, the more important it is to find and feel authentically positive emotions – including joy.

Sometimes joy is a sustained experience. Perhaps your child is born and you hold her and your day is filled with a stunned and solemn joy. But I’ve found that intense joy usually comes in brief pulses. You inhale and smile and there is joy for a few seconds, often for no reason at all. Recognizing and valuing these little moments of delight expands the possibilities for having them. Adding even just a few “beads” of joy changes the whole necklace of seconds that make up your day.

One way to evoke joy is to value opportunities to feel it that naturally appear in daily life. Intense gratitude for hot water, amazement at the sun, the extreme pleasure of sneezing, blown away that your partner still loves you, so so so happy to come home after a long day of work . . . . all of these are chances for joy.

You can also deliberately call it to mind, perhaps remembering a beautiful mountain meadow at sunset and then the world-changing overnight to white silence as you crawl out of your tent at dawn to a foot of new snow. Perhaps thinking about someone you love, or a major challenge you have put to rest behind you.

And you can just flick a kind of switch in your mind and turn directly toward joy. Really. The more experiences of joy that you’ve had and taken into yourself, the easier this gets. Additionally, try things like saying to yourself, “May there be joy,” and open and receive it. Look for and call forth quick pulses and rushes and flashes of joy. If it’s real for you, joy may have a spiritual aspect to it, perhaps a joyful sense of something divine.

In whatever way you find it, the possibility of joy – and of course the experience itself – can be a refuge at all times, and especially during hard ones. Joy-like flashes of light again and again in even dark and stormy skies.

Know Someone Who Could Use More Joy in Their Life?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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