Joy is not in things; it is in us. It sounds simple enough — but it’s an aphorism that’s all too easy to forget as we live our day-to-day lives. Too many moments are spent simply trying to make ends meet — even when we think that promotion or that new apartment is bound to make us happier, more content with our lives. It may be common knowledge that acquiring more luxuries doesn’t bring more happiness — no matter how in sync with our dreams it may be. Finding that joy within us, seems a much more daunting task. We may come to believe that it’s only available in small doses — you get that dream apartment and then the refrigerator goes … life somehow reverts back to normal eventually. We may spend our whole lives searching — trying to extract purpose from everywhere we turn.
Fortunately, recent research suggests a good place to start. Joy may be in us, but how we perceive our own lives could be the exact thing that keeps us from experiencing it. Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt, experts in a rising field known as “positive psychology,” have demonstrated through research that however unhappy we may be with our lives, we typically have three times more positive experiences than bad ones on a daily basis. For some reason, it’s the bad ones that seem to stand out. Why is that? Experts have singled out two factors: negativity bias and habituation.
As the psychologist Roy Baumeister once wrote: “Many good events can overcome the psychological effects of a single bad one. When equal measures of good and bad are present, however, the psychological effects of bad ones outweigh those of the good ones.”
You probably had a full night’s sleep, picked up a surprisingly decent cup of coffee on the way to work, and probably just opened your office window to let in some unseasonably warm weather, before sitting down to check your email and find a rather scathing one sent from the project manager. It’s pretty likely that whatever she wrote is going to dampen the rest of your day — no matter how many pleasant little surprises are just around the corner. If it’s a pretty decent job on most days, and you started with good pay, you may forget the things you enjoy about it the longer you stay around — even promotions and raises aren’t always likely to make you happier — a cycle known as the “hedonic treadmill.”
Aside from trying to reflect on the good experiences you have from day to day, maybe you should feel free to share them with those around you your spouse or significant other, friends, co-workers, or family. It might sound like showing off we all don’t want to be the office overachiever. As a result, we tend to play up the negative events in our life, feeling it makes us easier to relate to, and more empathetic to our co-workers who don’t have it so good. Yet, research conducted by Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues at Brigham Young University demonstrates that discussing your positive life experiences not only increases your well-being but your overall satisfaction with life, and even increases your energy.
Lambert and his researchers suggest that you share the good things that happen to you with close friends or romantic partners, those trusted confidantes more likely to support you. The participants in the project felt happier and more emotionally satisfied the more they shared their experiences with people on that particular day. Earlier studies have also shown that gratitude improves our ability to connect with others, while also making us more optimistic, and even improving physical health.
Lambert’s study, however, shows how verbally expressing the gratitude is even more crucial than merely experiencing it. Test subjects were asked to write daily reflections in a journal over a monthlong period about events they felt grateful for. The group that shared their reflections by reading aloud to a partner reported greater satisfaction with life, happiness, and their overall vitality.
All too often we seek out people we can confide in with bad news. It may be just as important that we are able to break good news the same way, seeking out a trusted listener who can appreciate these moments with us each day. For those we care about, we can try to be that person — a supportive and empathic listener. You may not only be helping your friend, but the people around them as well.
It’s easy to think of seeking joy as a selfish goal, or at least a lonely one, but perhaps it is long past time we see it differently — something we can share with others while helping them realize their own. The novelist Virginia Woolf once cautioned us: “Pleasure has no relish unless we share it.” Now we have evidence she was right.
This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2018 issue.