We have, if we’re lucky, about 30,000 days to play the game of life. So given our fleeting time on earth, how can we bring more joy into our lives? Joy is one of our most powerful emotions. And it’s an effective antidote to burnout. If a culture of well-being is going to be part of our future of work, one of the building blocks has to be joy.
The origins of the word “joy” date back to the 13th century, coming from the Old French word joie, meaning pleasure, delight, bliss. I also love its association with the Latin word gaudere, or rejoice, meaning joy is also an action we can take. And unlike happiness, which can sometimes seem like a far-off, distant, end-state, joy is about being in the moment. And joy doesn’t just make us feel good. According to Mental Health America, it can lower anxiety, decrease stress hormones, promote heart health and even lessen pain.
Though we can of course find joy in solitude, there is also a fundamental social aspect to it. As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. George Vaillant put it, “joy is all about our connection to others.” Vaillant is the lead researcher of Harvard’s famous Grant Study, a 75-year longitudinal effort to identify predictors of health and well-being. And what Vaillant’s team found is that, more important than our genes, or money or fame, are close relationships built on joy.
Here’s another great thing about joy — it’s contagious. According to sociologist Nicholas Christakis, “When you make positive changes in your own life, those effects ripple out from you and you can find yourself surrounded by the very thing you fostered.”
That’s why joy can be so powerful at work — it’s a force multiplier that allows teams and companies to set ambitious goals and meet them without burning out. A study by researchers at Warwick University found that joy and happiness made people 12% more productive. As study author Daniel Sgroi put it, “happier workers use the time they have more effectively, increasing the pace at which they can work without sacrificing quality.”
Research by Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, found that when our brains are in a positive state, we’re 31% more productive than when we’re negative or stressed. According to a report by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), joy in the medical world doesn’t just increase productivity and lower costs, it also leads to fewer medical errors and better patient outcomes. As IHI President Emeritus Dr. Donald Berwick wrote, “In our work in healthcare, joy is not just humane; it’s instrumental.”
This instrumental power of joy was even put to work in the development of the Pfizer vaccine. In his new book Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla writes eloquently about how essential joy was in the sprint to create and distribute Pfizer’s Covid vaccine in record time. In fact, joy is one of Pfizer’s core cultural values, alongside courage, excellence and equity.
Every person deserves to find joy in their work. That doesn’t mean every day and every task is going to be joyful. At Thrive we encourage Thrivers to speak up (in a culture of Compassionate Directness) if their job has ceased to light that spark, and support them in exploring other roles at Thrive that would bring them joy — or even looking for a job outside the company that can rekindle that spark.
Other companies are also recognizing joy’s unique power to shape cultures of innovation. Airbnb has institutionalized the idea of joy through the creation of a Chief Happiness Officer, a practice the French business school HEC calls “not just a trend, but ultimately a long-term investment that makes real business sense.” At SAP, the role is filled by Toby Haug, whose official title is “Head of Humanizing Business,” with the mission of “managing the changing expectation of a future workforce to be productive, engaged, and happy.” As Haug put it, “Many people still think we have work on one hand and life on the other. Yet we have one life, where work is a major part. If we’re not well and happy, that will affect both home and work.” While work is an essential part of life, it shouldn’t take the place of life. Or as Deloitte’s Chief Well-being Officer Jen Fisher put it, it’s time to move past the faulty idea of “work-life balance” and focus on “life-work integration” instead. And joy is key to both life and work.
Clearly, business is coming around to the idea that work can encompass joy and not just productivity, but as the Great Resignation shows, we still have a long way to go in creating joyful, thriving cultures at work.
As A.T. Kearney managing partner Alex Liu says, companies are always making investments in technology to connect their employees to customers and to each other, but many of them overlook one of the most powerful connectors. “Business leaders tend to think a great deal about success, but rarely about joy,” Liu writes. “Chances are, few are even aware of the joy gap in their organization and the resulting lack of interpersonal connection and team aspiration. That must change. Joy can pack as much practical punch as technology if we allow it to.”
Closing that joy gap in our organizations is one of our biggest opportunities. And the good news is that we don’t have to wait until something comes along that sparks joy — we can help light that spark. As Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern, says, since our brains create emotions out of physiological signals, by taking care of ourselves, we increase positive signals: “You can get more sleep. You can eat properly and exercise.” We can also prime ourselves for joy by practicing the emotions we want to have. “If you know that your brain uses your past in order to create the present,” says Barrett, “then you can practice cultivating positive emotions today so that your brain can automatically use that knowledge when it’s making emotions tomorrow.” It’s an investment in a more joyful state of mind in the future.
It’s a mindset shift — from passively experiencing joy to actively practicing it. And by practicing joy, we “rewire” our brains to get better at finding joy as a habit, the same way we create muscle memory by practicing a sport or a musical instrument. “Your brain grows new connections that make it easier for you to automatically cultivate these emotions in the future,” Barrett says.
While we think of joy as a kind of proxy for good feelings of any kind, researchers, including University of California, Irvine professor Belinda Campos, have broken positive emotions down into a “family tree.” Alongside joy, there are close cousins like gratitude and awe. And one of the primary benefits all of them have is to help us shift our perspective beyond ourselves: “positive emotions,” says Campos, “are part of what helps you to put others before the self.”
A particularly touching expression of joy came during the Senate hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Photojournalist Sarahbeth Maney snapped a photo showing Judge Jackson’s daughter Leila beaming with pride as she watched her mother. It was a vivid example of kvelling, one of my favorite Yiddish words that means bursting with pride. It was also a vivid reminder, as the photographer explained after the photo went viral, that there’s a racial inequity in the media’s depictions of joy. “I also look for joy in the Black community and try to represent it as much as I can,” she said. “Historically, we have not seen many images of Black joy or what it feels like to be a proud Black person. That look from Leila to Judge Jackson felt so joyful that I wanted others to experience it.”
Gratitude is another powerful way to bring more joy into our lives. One way I do it, which I borrowed from my daughter Christina, is to simply write down a few things I’m grateful for before going to bed. Sharing your gratitude list with friends can amplify its power — again, the difference between feeling gratitude and practicing gratitude. It’s also a tool that can be used by companies, as Campos does in her lab. “What we see so far is that people enjoy writing what they appreciate in others, and they enjoy sharing it with the other person,” she says. “It seems to be affirming bonds.”
It’s also important to note that cultivating joy doesn’t mean not allowing ourselves to feel sad or melancholy. In fact, joy is deeply connected to these emotions. That’s the premise of Susan Cain’s brilliant new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. As Cain puts it, it’s “the recognition that light and dark, birth and death — bitter and sweet — are forever paired.” We tend to think of our times of sorrow and misfortune as departures from an idealized state of happiness and joy. But as Cain writes, “our stories of loss and separation are also the baseline state, right alongside our stories of landing our dream job, falling in love, giving birth to our miraculous children. And the very highest states — of awe and joy, wonder and love, meaning and creativity — emerge from this bittersweet nature of reality. We experience them not because life is perfect — but because it’s not.”
So allowing ourselves to experience and embrace the full range of our emotions is what makes the feeling of joy so special. As Brené Brown put it, “My bittersweet state of mind is not about perpetual sadness or melancholy. In fact, it is the source of my joy, my gratitude, and my hope. I have a very clear understanding of pain and sorrow and loss, and the reverence I have for what is hard makes what is sweet and good about life even sweeter.”
Though we can find joy on big occasions and during major milestones, we can also find it in very small moments. Sara Moniuszko recently wrote in USA Today about “glimmers,” a term coined by licensed clinical social worker Deb Dana in her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. “We’re not talking great, big, expansive experiences of joy or safety or connection,” Dana explains. “These are micro moments that begin to shape our system in very gentle ways.” In addition to sparking joy, glimmers can also bring on feelings of calm and lower our stress. And once we recognize what causes them in our own lives, we can create the conditions to have more of them. “What we’ve discovered is as you begin to see a glimmer, you begin to look for more,” says Dana. “It’s just what we do… and we then delight in finding them.”
Creating glimmers, or as we call them at Thrive, joy triggers, is one of the drivers behind Thrive Reset. It’s a tool based on the neuroscience that shows that we can course-correct from stress in just 60 to 90 seconds. In addition to our over 100 preloaded Resets in the Thrive platform, users can create their own personal Resets with the images, quotes and music that bring them joy. By playing a different team member’s personal Reset at the opening of every all-hands meeting, we use the shared and infectious power of joy to create authentic connections within our teams.
The past two years have been a crucible time of sorrow and loss. And our future is going to continue to be defined by uncertainty and disruption. That’s why we need to seek out the power of joy more than ever. So find whatever it is that gives you joy, or create glimmers that delight you — in moments big and small — and light the spark.
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