Friday, December 20, 2013





 Joy to the World is a powerful anthem. Bells ring. Choirs sing. And people gather round trees, open presents, and gorge on meats and sweets.

Joy seems to abound this time of year. Even news media seem keen on adding a dollop of good  news to their daily buffet of badness. Of course, the Christmas story is full of good news.

Joy is an advent theme. In the Christmas story, Joy comes as a child. We know that joy. I recall the
ultrasound picture of my first granddaughter. Marvelous. A happy moment for all. And of course you naturally want to celebrate by giving presents. So the joy spreads from inside to others. Especially the children who can barely wait to peak beneath the tree and ornament decorated swaddling paper wrapped lovingly around a precious gift.

JOY has an effect.  Psychologist Barbara Frederickson has looked at the effects of positive emotions like joy and negative emotions like fear. In one study of five emotions (joy, contentment, neutral, fear, anger), she found that people who experienced joy and contentment generated significantly more ideas about future activities than those who were angry or fearful—or even neutral. Positive emotions build us up. Negative emotions drag us down. And what’s happening affects our mood-- songs, movies, stories.

Joyful people are more playful. When children play, they increase creativity and brain development. Joyfulness and happiness appear to lead to an upward spiral. Acting in joyful ways frees people to be more creative and leads to more joy and more creativity.

Barbara Frederickson summarizes some of her research on YouTube. Even something as simple as candy can lead to better test scores. Positive emotions lead to seeing more possibilities, becoming more creative, and responding better to life challenges (resilience research).

Barbara Frederickson Video

It turns out our joy and happiness can be manufactured. We naturally respond to real life events like a new baby, a new relationship, a new job, or a fantastic gift. Earlier this year my wife and I were truly surprised by a huge party put on by our son and his wife and her family in honor of our 40th wedding anniversary. What a happy moment. And it still makes me smile. 

We don't only respond to real experiences. We also anticipate how we will feel when faced with choices. When truly given a choice, we pick one we think we will like. And we justify our choices—sometimes in pretty creative ways that make others skeptical. How could you be happy with that car that’s always in the repair shop? How could you live with that (man/woman)? But the research shows that this synthetic or manufactured happiness really affects our mood.

 We have the power to evaluate life events and alter our moods.

Here’s an excerpt from a talk by Dan Gilbert.

Here's two different futures that I invite you to contemplate, and you can try to simulate them and tell me which one you think you might prefer. One of them is winning the lottery. This is about 314 million dollars. And the other is becoming paraplegic. So, just give it a moment of thought. You probably don't feel like you need a moment of thought. 
…the fact is that a year after losing the use of their legs, and a year after winning the lotto, lottery winners and paraplegics are equally happy with their lives.

Dan Gilbert Video on Happiness

If you want to learn more about joy and happiness, I've included a few references at the bottom of this post. I don't receive any funds from these recommendations.

To close, here's a link to one version of a famous song of Joy.

Joy To The World

May you have a joyful holiday!

Read more
Gilbert, D. (2005). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage.

Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis. New York: Basic Books.

Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S.J., & Pedrotti, J.T. (2011). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths (Second edition). Washington, DC, Sage.

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