The Brain Science of Joy- Can We Force Ourselves To Be Happy?

September 30, 2014

I was listening to a radio program the other day and the topic was about Joy.  Now, we all like to have joy in our lives, and we usually define it as happiness and maybe even laughter.  I thought, "well, I could always use a little more so I will keep listening."  


The speaker presented joy as "glad to be with someone, and knowing that someone is glad to be with you."  At first I semi-rejected that thought, but as I reflected upon it, I realized that there was definitely some truth in it.  The speaker went on to tie it to brain science, and I was listening!


It seems that we all have a "joy center" in our brains, and it is highly relational.  As kids, our capacity to live in joy and receive joy is impacted by our experiences with KEY people that we are close to i.e. parents, siblings, grandparents. The more we feel and believe that these people are glad to be with us, and if we feel glad to be with them, the more capable we are as adults to live in a joyous state.   Contrarily, if we don't feel that,  the less capable we are of having joy.


Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin  found that people who have higher degrees of joy brain activity are able to work through negative emotions and events much more quickly than those with limited degrees of joy brain activity.


Are we trapped forever in a dismal state of misery?  Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky says we can do something about it.  As much as 40 percent of our joy "is left for the intentional activities that we can choose to engage in -- the things that we do and think every day of our lives. 


Scientists know that joyful people practice, more acts of kindness, are able to lose themselves in whatever they enjoy doing, and avoid dwelling on their problems.  The biggest bang for your joyful buck is focusing on relationship type activities- such as giving, forgiving, savoring the present moment, and  spending time with people you really enjoy being with.  Lyubomirsky has had lab subjects actually engage in some of these activities, and found that people can indeed force themselves to truly become more joyful. But, such interventions take work because people easily fall back to their genetically-determined joyous set points.




Try this activity to increase your level of joy.  Research says your brain will show NOTICEABLE changes in just two weeks :


Sit quietly for a half-hour a day just thinking about kindness and compassion.


"In many ways, this is the most important idea in neuroscience in the last decade," he said. "Our brains are just waiting to be transformed, and they're always being transformed. But we can take responsibility and change the brain in more positive ways."


Think about how this can transform the workplace.  Are you willing to try it?


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