While avoidance of anxiety, stress and sadness can provide temporary relief, intentionally focusing on generating joy can be a proactive way to curb negative affect. It can also make unpleasant feelings around stress become more manageable by acknowledging negative emotions and providing us with the capacity to experience, negotiate and see them as the temporary emotions that they are.
Fortunately, our brain has the capacity to generate and hold on to joy (and empathy, love and compassion!) just like it can become ‘stuck’ in fear or sadness. Parents who find themselves in anxiety are often very practiced in future thinking, catastrophizing and avoidance. However, much like we can help train our brain to fear and embrace negative affect, it takes brain training to teach our brain to generate joy. Our bodies are fortunate enough to have a ‘cooling fan’ that can help when negative affect spikes and we want to bring our mind and body back to a more relaxed state: breathing! According to Dr. Emma Seppala, our breath is a rapid and reliable pathway into your nervous system that is dedicated to helping your body regain it’s regulated state.
So how can we actively work toward generating joy? One way is positive empathy. This is done through sharing, celebrating and enjoying positive emotions, which can, in turn, increase individual well-being, connectedness and, ultimately, joy. Simply put – even witnessing other people’s joy can decrease our own levels of stress and anxiety. Why? Because people’s brains do things that they are accustomed to doing and seeing. When someone is used to being negatively judgmental, they become really practiced in noticing negative affect. As a person becomes attuned to noticing opportunities for joy, gratitude and compassion, they are more likely to practice gratitude and notice joy and act compassionately.
How can this impact parenting our kids? Parents who spend more time living in positive affect states such as joy and love are more likely to have kids who experience those emotions more regularly and feel more securely attached to their parents. According to recent research, this principle can be even more true for fathers, a gender that is not always equated with emotions but can hold a key to successful emotional health of a child. In similar ways that children who have parents who are more empathic, compassionate and/or validating, focusing on creating joy for oneself and family teaches kids ways that they, too, can experience joy without only external reward.
Looking for some new ideas that can help create joy for you and your family? Here are a list of 7 ways to integrate joy into your life that can have an immediate benefit for both the parent and their kids. Sometimes generating joy can be as easy as finding joy in others – one of the main reasons that movies showing puppies, kittens and happy babies have gained incredible popularity on video sharing sites. And it is hard to think about joy without a quick promotion for the power of gratitude and beginning a gratitude practice. Gratitude, all by itself, can create and sustain joy through the shear act of expressing our appreciation or thanks to another person. Want a quick experiment? Try asking for a manager at a store or restaurant to express thanks for receiving good service and notice if your mood shifts with the simple act of articulating gratitude toward another. Instilling the power of gratitude in kids can help create appreciation, broaden perspective, increase social connectivity, promote better grades and enhance satisfaction with school, family and friendships. Take 10 minutes to do something that can generate joy….your brain and family will thank you!