Why does joy matter?
The answer to this question is one we already know and often forget: when we are joyful, energised and in a good space, everything else in our life improves. We think better, we communicate better, we can manage our time better and we deal with difficulties better. We are better parents, partners, children, carers, friends, colleagues, leaders…
Our negativity bias
We all have the capacity to experience joy, its one of the four human emotions alongside sadness, fear and anger; it’s not something we need to learn. We do need to learn how to let the good stuff in more often.
Many of us struggle to see the good, pleasant and joyful things. It’s easier to focus on what’s lacking in our life, on what and who we don’t like, the difficulties, the struggles, the stuff that drags us down. Why is this?
Neuroscientists refer to the negativity bias, built into human nature over the course of our evolution, essential when we were cavemen and women for outwitting predators and avoiding danger. In fact, we’re still extremely good at anticipating and avoiding danger, it’s hard wired into us.
Did you know it can take us as little as a tenth of a second to notice a threat – an aggressive looking face, for example, yet it takes most people many times longer notice something pleasant.
This is compounded by the fact that we react to threats almost instantaneously and that they go straight into memory ready for instant recall, while positive experiences take far longer to sink in.
It is estimated that it can take five pleasant experiences to balance a single negative of equal magnitude.
So in a nutshell: evolution has given us a brain that routinely tricks us into overestimating threats and underestimating rewards and opportunities. While this makes evolutionary sense, it explains why we find it difficult to experience joy and happiness more often, even on a daily basis.
Some good news
The plasticity of the human brain means that we can train our minds, we can rewire how we think. By focusing on pleasure, we can encourage the parts of our brain that notice and create sensations of joy, happiness, appreciation and pleasure to grow and become stronger – to ‘wire’ together, ie to ‘re-wire’.
The plasticity of the brain is further illustrated by the work of world renown neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, Neuroscientist. Davidson shows how we can get better at well-being, that wellbeing is a skill we can train our minds in.
Did you know? for every difficult or negative experience we have in our day, we encounter three or more moments of joy. The secret is to notice them more and more often. To dwell in them.
How can we notice more the joyful things in life?
1. When you have your morning tea or coffee, notice the first sip and the pleasure of it. Take a moment and really enjoy your start the day.
2. On your way to work, stop, look and listen; notice at least one thing you appreciate: your surroundings, the trees, the sky, children’s laughter, the sound of birds, a happy dog, someone smiling at you, a colleague’s warm greeting, a meaningful chat with friend or the fact that you got a seat on the train or bus on your commute!
3. At lunch time, enjoy your meal. Rather than focusing on not having enough time for your lunch break, choose to take at least 20 – 30 minutes (ideally longer if you can) to sit down and enjoy, really taste your food, have a proper break. It will ground you and you’ll feel more productive in the afternoon.
4. In the evening write down three things you were grateful for in your day or share three things with your spouse, partner or a friend; something you are proud of, something you appreciated about yourself such as a contribution you made in a meeting, or someone you helped.
5. When you talk to someone, be present, really listen and take them in. Notice at least one of their good qualities, what you appreciate about them. Every person has positive qualities – even the people we think we don’t like!
And finally, when we practice noticing the joyful things in our lives, it is important to pause for a moment, to dwell in the pleasure, to really let the experience in, so that we not only register the experience in our brain but so we can sense it in our body too. The body then sends a signal of wellbeing back to our brain. And the more we practice that ‘brain muscle’, the better we feel about life. Of course it doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulties anymore, but by noticing the joyful moments more, the difficult will feel less difficult and will pass sooner.
As always, get in touch, let me know how you get on. I would love to hear about your experience.
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