One of the most powerful lessons from this past year — a year filled with turmoil, anxiety, and unrest — is that joy isn’t dependent on external circumstances. Real contentment comes from God. With divine help, we can cultivate joy even through life’s most challenging moments. As Christians, we know this, yet we so easily forget.
At Adventist Health, we strive to live God’s love by inspiring health, wholeness, and hope. Helping our communities live more joy-filled lives is part of what brings that wholeness to those we serve. More joy and happiness can contribute to increased health, better relationships, longer life, and improved productivity. Joy can be cultivated with practice. Here are five science-backed ways to experience more peace and joy.
1. Find the Good
When you’re feeling unhappy, it’s natural to look for things to fix so you can feel joyful again. However, research shows that recognizing what’s good around you is more likely to bring lasting joy than looking for what’s broken.1
WRITE IT DOWN
One way to see the good things around you is to simply keep track. Every day, take time to write down three things that went well. Think about why those things happened and note how you felt. This exercise can help you reduce depression and burnout, experience more joy, and improve your work-life balance.
WALK FOR JOY
God created the world specifically for your enjoyment. Seeing the good around you can be as easy as taking a walk and focusing on your senses. Observe the sights, sounds, and smells. When you encounter something beautiful or positive, take a moment to reflect on why you enjoy it.
Consider what Ellen White said about this important joy-building practice: “Nature and revelation alike testify of God’s love. Our Father in heaven is the source of life, wisdom, and joy. Look at the wonderful and beautiful things of nature. Think of their marvelous adaptation to the needs and happiness, not only of man but of all living creatures. The sunshine and the rain, that gladden and refresh the earth, the hills and seas and plains, all speak to us of the Creator’s love. It is God who supplies the daily needs of all His creatures” (Steps to Christ, p. 7).
MAKE SPACE FOR JOY
It’s easy to spend all your spare time checking things off to-do lists. This can lead to having trouble seeing the good that’s right in front of you. In other words, you smother your capacity for joy.
Here is a specific strategy you can use to regenerate and recover from this tendency. You can choose to carve out space for joy.
Make time for enjoyment by praying, reading, listening to music, or simply resting. Meet or call a friend, volunteer in the community, or take a bike ride. This exercise helps reconnect your brain to your sense of pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
2. Subtraction Adds Joy
You’ve probably heard that too much of a good thing can be bad for you. It’s easy to take beauty and the good in life for granted. Over time, repeated exposure to a good thing brings less and less satisfaction. Eventually, that good thing will stop registering in your consciousness. However, if you introduce a little deprivation on occasion, you can help increase your appreciation for life.
CONSIDER ALTERNATE OUTCOMES
One way to increase your appreciation for life is to think about a positive event and recall all of the circumstances that made it possible. Then, consider how things might have turned out unfavorably under different circumstances.
Taking a few moments to picture alternative realities helps create a favorable comparison for your brain. This exercise helps your mind see that the good things in life aren’t inevitable, which puts your current reality in a positive light.
If imagining life without blessings isn’t quite sparking joy, consider going without something. This exercise takes something you enjoy that is relatively abundant in your life and removes it for one week. Take a favorite food or social media as an example. After a week, treat yourself to that item again. As you reintroduce the item, pay attention to how it feels.
A 2013 study showed that people who tried this exercise experienced better moods when they reintroduced the thing they had gone without. Comparatively, people who didn’t go without the same thing and kept it in their life all week experienced less enjoyment.2
3. Identify Purpose
If you can sum up your life purpose in one phrase, research suggests that you could live up to seven good years longer. The takeaway from researcher Dan Buettner’s work on Blue Zones is that immersing yourself in an environment you find meaningful and rewarding brings joy and happiness.
Paul talked about this in his letter to Christians in Ephesus. “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, He had His eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone” (Eph. 1:11, 12, The Message).
ACKNOWLEDGE GOD’S PURPOSE
You can find purpose in your life in specific ways. For Christians, the first step is to acknowledge the source of everything good in life. You can read about it in Jeremiah, where God says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” … “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11, NIV).
God has a plan for your life, and what’s better, it’s a good plan. There’s nothing in that plan that says God intends harm or unhappiness. Knowing this gives you a solid foundation to build upon as you seek to discover your unique purpose.
A WEEK OF PHOTOS
One way to discover purpose is to take photographs of meaningful things around you for one week. Is it people in your family, favorite haunts, childhood keepsakes, or friends that encourage you? After seven days, set aside an hour to look at the photo album you’ve created. What does every photo represent? Why is it meaningful? If it helps, write down some of your thoughts.
Taking time to remind yourself of what is important provides energy and the ability to deal with the stress of everyday life. It helps to highlight what’s meaningful to you. Knowing what's important empowers informed decisions about how you spend your time and energy.
4. Use Your Talents
God gave you a unique personality and gifts. Ask yourself what positive character traits you possess and then plan to use those gifts for good.
Every day for a week, choose one of these strengths. Then, put it to work in a new and different way. You can use the same strength every day, or you can focus on different strengths each day. When the week is over, reflect on the exercise and note how it made you feel and what you learned.
This simple act of focusing on your God-given strengths fights depression and boosts happiness. It can increase success at work and in relationships and can support your efforts to build joy.
5. Connect with Others
While the previous four practices require introspection, research shows that turning outward and connecting with others is a proven way to discover joy. Developing a network of social connections can bring contentment.3
One thing you can do to feel joy right away is to just do something for others. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or elaborate. A random act of kindness goes
a long way toward feeling connected with others.
Reach out to neighbors and strangers alike. Research shows you can increase that sense of connection by choosing one day a week to focus on offering acts of kindness to others and performing those acts multiple times in different ways.4
Another way to build joy through connections is through generosity. Give of yourself, your time, and your resources. Generosity is most effective at building joy when it meets three criteria:
Finding joy in life isn’t something that happens overnight. There isn’t one magic solution. Ask God to lead you on your journey to joy, and He will. As you walk together, these simple practices can help you discover joy as you slow down and refocus on the good things around you.
Go ahead. Pursue happiness! And may your heart leap for joy, as did the psalmist’s (Ps. 28:7, NIV).
Julie Kosey is Adventist Health human performance coaching director. Randy Speyer is Adventist Health Roseville mission and spiritual care director in Roseville, California, United States. This commentary was originally published by the North Pacific Union Conference Gleaner and is reprinted here with permission.
1. Christopher Peterson et al., “Orientations to Happiness and Life Satisfaction: The Full Life Versus the Empty Life,” Journal of Happiness Studies 6 (2005): 25–41, https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/43062/10902_2004_Article_1278.pdf.
2. Jordi Quoidbach, Elizabeth W. Dunn, “Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2013): 1–6, DOI: 10.1177/1948550612473489.
3. Ed Diener, Martin E. P. Seligman, “Very Happy People,” Psychological Science 13, no. 1 (2002): 81–84, DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00415.
4. Sonja Lyubomirsky et al., “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture for Sustainable Change,” Review of General Psychology 9, no. 2 (2005): 111–131, DOI: 10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11.