How Joy Helps Kids Thrive

by Meghan Fitzgerald

I must admit, I love new year’s resolutions. An eternal optimist, I craft ambitious lists of ways to optimize every new year. In 2019, though, I am putting all my chips on one resolution—joy.

This is for my benefit, but I also want my kids to be joy seekers, moving through the world, ready and able to find and capture the bits of joy.

These days, the world can feel terribly uncertain. But, I feel real serenity in shifting focus from worrying about that to accepting that nothing is more certain than that life is uncertain. This feels even more calming when I also feel like I can prepare my kids (and myself) to manage whatever our tomorrows bring.

And, that brings me to how best to prepare. What could be better than preparing for the future in a way that also captures the very best of our today, especially since we have joy— a superpower, hard-wired inside us. So, cheers to a 2019 spent nurturing our capacity to seek and find real, in the moment, give-you-goosebumps, make-your-leap-up-and-down joy.

What is joy?

Joy is defined as an experience of intense, immediate positive emotion. Although objects, places and experiences of the external world can inspire joy, the feeling comes from within. Joy is something that we experience in the here and now, and, although it may last mere moments, it impacts our bodies and our minds in lasting ways.

I love that joy has both an in-the-moment quality and ongoing effects—especially when balancing life and young kids. There is no need to maintain a constant state of happiness (visit my home around 5:30 pm on a weeknight, and you’ll know that would be impossible). But, you can capture and treasure moments of joy along the way, and those bits of joy collect to be worth more than the sum of their parts. Talk about joy moments with kids at dinner, at bath time, or just before bed—and they overshadow the bumpy parts and become what you and yours remember and treasure about your day.

Joy and the brain

Joy also has an incredible impact on the growing brain. Every time kids experience joy, the pathways in their brains that are dedicated to feeling this positive emotion grow stronger. Plus, we can trigger the experience of joy simply by recalling moments in which we experienced it, or just by thinking about things that make us feel joyful. So, the more our kids experience joy, the more readily their growing brain can conjure joy when they need it.

For good evolutionary reason, our minds are predisposed to negative thoughts—it turns out, being able to identify and avoid danger is helpful to survival. As neurologist Rick Hanson says, our brains are “like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.” Given this tendency, it’s all the more important to help kids strengthen their “joy pathways” to help them tip their emotional balance in a positive direction.

Joy and wellness

The research is clear—happiness and joy are good for our health. These positive emotions contribute to a wide range of important positive health outcomes, including improved heart health, stronger immune systems, reduced stress, and even a longer lifespan. Who would not want these improvements in wellness for our kiddos?

Joy sustains us emotionally

Although I still (and may always) shudder at the thought that any of my kids should experience pain, I do recognize that their struggles are inevitable. No matter what I do, they will feel disappointment. They will experience loss. Although powerless to prevent this, I can prepare them by cultivating their capacity to find and store up bits of joy that can buoy them when the waters of life grow rough and stormy.

“Find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.” —Joseph Campbell

Where does joy hide?

If we are going to support the joy hunters within, it is helpful to start spotting triggers for joy. Joy can hide in a wide range of places, and once you are attuned to joy, it is not so hard to find. Recently, I was captivated by designer and writer, Ingrid Fetell Lee’s take on where joy hides. Her TED talk inspired me with some of what she found are universal patterns in what humans find joyful.

“Deep within us, we all have this impulse to seek out joy in our surroundings the drive towards joy is the drive toward life.” —Ingrid Fetell Lee

So, I continued her thread and searched for great ways to spark joy. Not surprisingly, opportunities for joy hide in plain sight in nature. Busy though our lives are, the moments I treasure most with my kids nearly all happen outdoors. And, that has not changed since my childhood—my best childhood memories took place out in nature. And, it’s for a good reason. Nature, from a majestic mountain to a tiny snowflake on the tip of one’s nose, evokes joy in humans.

"The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all."—naturalist and writer, Michael McCarthy

There are other patterns too, and many transfer from the natural into manmade worlds. Bright and happy colors, believed to be associated with our sense of life and abundance, make us joyful. Symmetry and orderly shapes can inspire joy as well. Round or curved objects and spaces emerge as joy inducers too.

So, what can we do?

Join us and put joy on the top of your 2019 list. Then, just start with today. If you want ideas, we’ve collected some of our favorites in our How to Hunt for Joy post. Keep each moment of joy just for you, or help to remind others of the power of joy by using #huntforjoy when you share whatever has inspired joy in you and your kids.

The world can feel rough, could joy be the answer?

I think it goes without saying that the climate, literal and figurative, in our world feels rough—and being human is challenging. But, one thing that makes being human so marvelous is our capacity for joy. What could happen to our collective capacity to care for one another, for other creatures, for our shared home if we cultivated our capacity to find and experience joy? I’m not sure about you, but this year seems to be the time to start finding out!

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