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Can You Plan for Joy?

By Kaia Roman ; Updated August 15, 2017

You know those people who always make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? The ones with the infectious smiles, bright eyes and bold laughs? It might be the person at the grocery checkout counter or your own best friend, but I’m sure you know someone whose joy spreads to everyone they meet.

I can think of quite a few people like this I’ve been blessed to know. I always feel better, even after the briefest of interactions with them. Because of the mirror neurons in our brains related to imitation, joy (along with every other emotion) is literally contagious.

Joy isn’t only contagious for others, but also for ourselves. Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains actually change and grow in response to our thoughts and experiences. And since our brains are physiologically wired to bring us back to predisposed neural pathways — like those formed by frequent happy thoughts and the emotion of joy — whenever we feel joy, we become primed for more.

Many self-help books and blogs focus on happiness. However, you’ve probably noticed in your own life that happiness is fleeting. There’s a reason for that. Scientists have found that happiness exists in the mind: It is experienced through the cortex, or conscious thought.

But joy is different. Joy exists in the body. It’s experienced through the limbic system, beyond conscious thought. While happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the brain’s fight-or-flight response, joy activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls rest and relaxation.

Happiness feels exciting and stimulating to the body, whereas joy feels calming and soothing. Few books make this distinction. Joy is a subconscious experience. It affects the entire body right down to the DNA and can lower inflammation and increase immunity. That means better health, less disease, even a longer life.

Joy has been studied and researched enough to know that there are proven things you can do to help create it — almost like a formula. In other words, you can plan for joy.

In search of this formula for myself, I wrote a book called “The Joy Plan. It’s a memoir that follows my self-imposed science experiment for 30 days and beyond. I found that to create the conditions for joy in my life on a consistent basis, I needed to embrace the following practices:

1. Gratitude

Frequent appreciation trains the brain for optimism. Studies show that optimists are happier, more creative and come up with solutions to problems more quickly. Try keeping a notebook in which you write down things that you’re thankful for each day. Express your gratitude to those around you. This simple habit can have a profound effect on your overall level of joy.

2. Mindfulness

Meditation and other mindfulness exercises help release stress and increase calmness and joy. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your awareness to the present moment with nonjudgmental attention. Practicing mindfulness is like giving your brain a soothing massage, and doing it regularly can calm anxiety, reduce inflammation and even decrease the signs of aging.

3. Simple Pleasures

Engaging in simple, pleasant actions that stimulate all five senses creates the conditions for appreciation and helps you be present in the current moment. To facilitate this, you can use props like aromatherapy oils for smell, yummy treats for taste, beautiful photos or scenery for sight, a soft object for touch and your favorite playlist for sound. The key is to take in each sensation slowly and with nonjudgmental attention. Even when you aren’t using props, your senses are a gateway for you to experience gratitude throughout the day.

4. Joyful Body

Certain physical lifestyle changes have been proven to increase the brain chemicals associated with well-being. Exercise releases endorphins. Spending time in nature stimulates serotonin. Close contact with loved ones boosts oxytocin. Getting enough sleep regulates a number of hormones. Eating a healthy diet high in vegetables improves many aspects of physical and mental well-being. Take care of your body and it will take care of you.

5. Kindness

It feels good to be kind. Even when you’re busy, it doesn’t take much time to write a kind note, wish a happy birthday or let someone know that you’re grateful for them. Small acts of kindness per­formed frequently will create a regular boost in your own mood and simultaneously improve the days of others. Kindness can be as simple as a smile or as complex as you can imagine.

To create lasting personal change, it’s important to engage both body and mind. Planning for joy requires simple steps every day: It’s not a quick fix. In order to be effective over the long haul, it must become a lifestyle. Repetition is the key to forming new habits of thought in the brain, which then become new feelings, new actions and, eventually, a new experience of life.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you practice gratitude? What simple pleasures do you engage in? Do you ever meditate? Let us know!

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