A friend commented to me recently that “It seems as though the pandemic has taken the joy out of life.” It is true that we have faced more than our share of disappointments, stresses, and uncertainties over the past year. Yet, I was left to wonder whether the statement is true. Has the pandemic robbed us of joy or is there a better way to think about the situation that would give us more power and control? Can we find joy despite the pandemic? Might the experience of the pandemic even give us reasons to seek joy? Where might we look to discover joy despite our circumstances?
With some research and time spent reflecting, a few things became clear to me. Joy is not something that originates externally. Joy comes from within. It is not driven by what happens to or around us. Joy grows out of decisions and commitments we make and priorities we set and pursue. In fact, our commitment to find and experience joy is part of what can make joy a more likely experience for us.
Joy can be defined as a long-term state of peace and contentment. It can be experienced in the moment as delight, but true joy is created, nurtured, and experienced over time. Consequently, our search for joy needs to grow out of pursuits that provide more than temporary ecstasy or momentary happiness. Here are seven actions we can take to increase the joy we experience each day, week, and year, even amid a pandemic and other difficult conditions.
First, we can choose to find and experience joy. The pandemic will end – soon we hope – but the end of the pandemic offers no guarantee of joy. We may experience relief, but joy is much more than removal of a burden or stress. In fact, waiting until joy finds us may mean we never experience it. Conversely, like many things in life we are most likely to find what we look for.
As a second step, we can seek authenticity in our experiences. We can treasure time spent with family. We can find ways to serve and improve the lives of others. We can learn a new skill that gives us pleasure and satisfaction. Meaningful experiences ground us. They help us to appreciate life even when everything is not perfect. But we need to pay attention. Meaningful times can pass us by if we fail to reflect on and savor them.
Third, we can live in the moment. Letting go of regrets from the past and choosing not to worry about aspects of the future we cannot control can free us to focus on what we are experiencing now that can bring joy and satisfaction. We can allow the burden of past missteps and mistakes to hold us back or we can let them go and focus on how we can be our best selves today. We can choose to worry about the future, but what we do today is more likely to determine our future than what we cannot know or control in the days ahead.
Fourth, we can set worthy, meaningful goals that will stretch us beyond our comfort zone and lead us to take some risks, learn something new, and become more capable. Working toward important goals can give us a sense of control, invite us to measure progress, and offer a reason to celebrate our accomplishments. Achievement of meaningful goals can also lead us to reflect on our efforts with pride and experience joy.
Fifth, we can nurture a sense of gratitude. The more we focus on what we have to be grateful for, the more we see the positive side of life. Gratitude shifts our focus from what we may not have to an appreciation for what life and those around us have given us. The more we practice gratitude the more we see reasons to be thankful and experience joy. Gratitude can improve our attitudes and enrich our lives. In the words of David Steindl-Rast: “It is not joy that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us joyful.”
Sixth, we can spend our time with positive people. We can treasure those in our family and our friends who bring a positive attitude and spirit to life. We can also seek out new friends and acquaintances who lift our perspective on life and make us better. Research and experience show that our attitudes and perspectives tend to reflect those of people with whom we choose to spend time. We need to choose people who bring us joy.
Seventh, we can find reasons to laugh. Laughter is contagious. It is difficult to be somber and negative when we are laughing. We can read, watch movies, listen to stories, or engage in other activities that stimulate healthy laughter. When we laugh, our brains release endorphins that make us feel better and more joyful. Laughter also offers the additional benefits of stress release and has even been shown to improve our immune systems.
The bottom line is that we all can experience joy, if we choose to seek it. The pandemic has been a difficult challenge, but it does not have to rob us of joy. We can choose to make this time joyful. It is within our power.