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Joy. Lately I’ve heard from many patients, friends and family that it is getting harder to “find joy”.  Students feeling trapped in an endless timeline of Zoom classes. Families getting on each other’s nerves. Parents multitasking their roles of employees and home school teachers. Individuals feeling isolated. How do you “find joy” when there seems to be so much creating fear, sadness and anxiety?

The problem isn’t about finding joy; it is about seeing joy. Crises can train our brains to focus only on those things related to the crises. This happens for two reasons. The first is priming. When we tell ourselves that “everything is horrible”, our brains hear us and then focus on stories or experiences which support this belief. We told our brains what to look for and our brains simply comply. The second challenge to seeing joy is confirmation bias. Our brains hold on to information and data which support our beliefs. If we tell our brains “this is so hard”, our brains will search for information to align with the belief (priming) and then our brains will hold tightly to that information, prohibiting contrary information in be retained in our consciousness. In essence, when we tell our brains there isn’t anything to be joyful about, our brains prove us right!

I’m hoping you are now thinking, “I don’t want that! But how can I retrain my brain to see joy?” One effective strategy is to write a joy list before bed every night. Keep a pad of paper or journal next to your bed and write down at least three things from the day that brought you happiness, made you smile, created a sense of calm. These are likely not big events like winning the lottery or getting engaged (although if either of those occur, congratulations!). Instead, seeing joy is about the small, brief moments occurring everyday in your life: a bird taking a bath in a puddle (a personal favorite of mine), a stranger smiling at you, how warm your home feels after being outside on a New England winter day, your pet laying at your feet. You don’t have to limit yourself to three things, but by challenging yourself at the beginning of this practice to find at least three things, you push your brain past the belief that there’s “nothing joyful”. You retrain your brain to search for the joy all day long because you tell it to, knowing you’ll be writing them down at night. And, because these are the last things you think about before sleep, your brain will play with these thoughts all night long, potentially resulting in a better night’s sleep and you waking up feeling calmer or less anxious.

Step 1: Tell your brain to search for the little joys during your day.

Step 2: Pay attention to the moments and things that make you smile or feel happy, even if it is a brief second.

Step 3: Make the time to recall these moments before bed and write them down.

If you do this every night, within a short period of time, your brain will start to accept the idea that life is good and joyful. It will become your go-to style of thinking because you told your brain to. And if you want to stimulate this practice, give yourself the gift of listening to the podcast posted on the Blog page, or search for “The Show of Delights” in This American Life…it will make you smile at least once (but likely more) during the hour and might just make it on to your joy list tonight.

Just a little something for your insight. – Dr. Robin