In my article “Combat the Downward Spiral: Choose Joy Instead!”, I gave you some reasons for why you should start a Joy Plan of your own, as well as a couple of tips for creating one. This article will continue giving you the tools to create your very own plan.
Gratitude and Optimism
Have you ever heard of a Gratitude Journal? If not, I highly recommend looking it up. A Gratitude Journal is where you write down everything you are grateful for, both large-scale – “I’m grateful for my home and family” – and small-scale – “I’m grateful for carrots”.
A regular practice of gratitude releases joy; studies at the National Institute for Psychological Sciences in Japan have shown that thoughts of appreciation and gratitude can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system that calms us down. It also releases dopamine. It’s good for the other person, too; receiving a compliment actually activates the same area of the brain as receiving a gift.
And, according to Dr. Dan Baker, fear and appreciation are unable to exist in the brain at the same time. You can have one or the other; they can even alternate. But you can’t have both.
In a similar vein, optimists are happier overall than pessimists. See, optimistic thoughts are actually observable in brain scans, regulating cortisol (the stress hormone), increasing dopamine, and calming the amygdala, or stress center. Optimists are shown to be happier, more creative, faster problem-solvers, and have increased mental alertness.
Meditation and Mindfulness
What is mindfulness, and what does it have to do with meditation and joy? Well, mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment. Have you ever heard of the phrase, “Stop and smell the roses”? That’s an example of mindfulness.
One way to be mindful is to focus on your breathing, which signals the amygdala to slow down. This helps us to think more clearly, and is why anxious people will be told to focus in their breath.
In a similar vein, meditation is the act of sitting quietly and breathing deeply. Regular meditation can calm anxiety, reduce inflammation, and decrease signs of aging. It allows the brain to slip from fast-moving beta waves to more relaxing alpha waves.
Many people have a misunderstanding of what meditation actually is. It’s not about stopping all thought, but rather releasing their grip on you. It’s about observing your thoughts without engaging in them.
Let the thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.
A good way to be more in the present moment is to focus on all five of your senses: touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste. Of course, not all people have all of these senses, but focusing on the ones you do have is a great way to be mindful.
Smell, for example, is a great memory carrier. The smell of must always reminds me of my grandmother’s house. Music, too, is a trigger for both memory and emotion.
Try this: carry props for a “five senses break”. It could be as simple as a dried flower for sight and smell, a piece of chocolate for taste, and a smooth wind chime for sound and touch.
Bringing More Joy
Thoughts are self-generated – habits, if you will. When you start worrying about something, try this: imagine a different scenario. Imagining actions actually stimulates the same part of the brain as doing those same actions. Pretty cool, right?
Some more ways to bring joy into your life are through food, laughter, spending time outside, exercise and sleep.
Try eating mindfully. Eat more slowly, and you may find that you not only eat less, but you enjoy it more, too. Try eating more foods that contain tryptophan, such as kale, broccoli, and black tea. Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s converted into serotonin, which can make us happier!
Laughter and smiling, even if forced, releases endorphins that reduce pain and increase pleasure. So laughing and smiling are literally good for you – and fun, too!
Spending time outside is good for us. It raises white blood cell levels, boosts immunity, and lowers cortisol, that nasty stress hormone we don’t want too much of. On a similar note, exercise, both aerobic and anaerobic, releases endorphins, just like laughter.
And, of course, don’t forget sleep. During sleep, thoughts are suspended, organs recuperate, and cells are regenerated. It reduces cortisol levels, and a regular sleep pattern sets an internal circadian rhythm. Studies have shown that the deepest sleep levels occur between 11pm and 3am, so going to bed earlier is actually healthier for you.
So, there you have it. Some more ways to increase joy in your life, and make yourself healthier, too. Well, what are you waiting for? Grab that joy!
Roman, Kaia. The Joy Plan. Sourcebooks, 2017.