7 emotional lessons for a more joyful life

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
7 Emotional Lessons for a More Joyful Life on The Aesthetics of Joy

This week I shared the beginnings of something new: the School of Joy. It’s an idea born out of conversations over email and during workshops with many of you — an online destination that will provide online courses, workshops, and resources (as well as a few in-person events) to help people find and create more joy in different areas of life. I also shared that the first course in this new school — Design a Joyful Home — is now live!

When I started studying joy, it was a project, a form of work. But I soon discovered that what I was learning crept into my life in significant ways. After all, I was studying an emotion that most of us want more of in life, and I certainly did as well. So as I processed diagrams of the brain and insights from affective psychology, I started putting these ideas into practice in my own daily routines.

Slowly but surely, these ideas changed my life. I’ve talked a lot in interviews and here on the blog about how I’ve applied my research to my home decor, my personal style, my exercise routine, even the composition of my snack plates. (Yes, you can apply the aesthetics of joy to snacking — harmony, abundance, even surprise! — and I highly recommend it!) But I realize one thing I haven’t shared as much is how gaining a deeper understanding of emotions in general and joy in particular has caused truly seismic shifts in my perspective and my life.

In this post, I wanted to share seven lessons that have helped me live a saner, more balanced, and more joyful life.

Emotions are an asset

Many of us grow up believing that emotions are a kind of deficiency, a phenomenon to be controlled, dealt with, and managed. Over the course of human history, emotions have been considered base (as opposed to elevated), animalistic (as opposed to human), and feminine (as opposed to masculine), all things that feel opposed to the cool, ordered, logical functioning of a human being in their prime. As someone who has always felt my emotions quite intensely, I spent a lot of my life feeling guilty or ashamed because of this bias.

You don’t have to look far to see it in action in Western culture. Take the critiques of Hillary Clinton supposedly being “too emotional to be president,” a view that implicitly equates emotional with dangerous and uncontrolled. To be “emotional” is to be unstable, out of your senses, and potentially acting against your own interest and the interests of others.

It’s true that emotions do have a largely unconscious component, which is what can make them feel overwhelming or hard to control at times. But the advantage emotions have is that they are intrinsically connected to motivation. (I talked about this in more detail in last week’s post.) We can think a powerful thought all day and have no impulse to act on it. But one sincere moment of empathy or one jolt of inspiration can be all it takes to start a relationship, a book, or a movement.

Everything significant that humans make happen in this world occurs in part because of emotion. Emotion is our prime mover. And life is smoother when we listen to what our emotions are telling us, making an effort to understand the ones that don’t serve our interests, and harness the ones that do.

All emotions have a purpose

Not all emotions feel good, yet we have them anyway. One response to this is to try to blunt the force of these emotions, and we humans have developed a range of strategies for this, from repression to substance use an abuse to other forms of escapism.

The problem, which we often don’t discover until after we’ve been numbing out for awhile, is that our ability to feel positive emotions — joy, excitement, amusement, love — lies in proportion to our ability to feel the negative ones. So after a few years of running away from grief or anger or anxiety it’s not surprising to find that something good happens, and instead of feeling elation, you feel frustratingly little at all.

As I began to study emotions, I discovered that emotions are so consistent across cultures for a reason: each evolved to serve a specific purpose related to the survival and thriving of the human species. Anger lets us know a boundary has been crossed, and moves us to rectify the breach. Sadness reminds us of the significance of a loss and draws social support to help us cope. (Imagine if it didn’t feel like anything to lose something or someone? How careful would we be in a world like this?) Fear alerts us to danger and motivates us to get to safety.

Now, that’s not to say that all our emotional reactions are always justified. Sometimes our emotions fire in response to patterns from our past that have been triggered in the present. But bringing the emotion up to conscious awareness is nearly always a better approach than avoiding it.

Awareness of the purpose of negative emotions has made it easier for me to let myself feel down during difficult times, without judging myself or trying to escape the feeling. I often say out loud, “I don’t want to be feeling this way right now, but I do.” This acknowledgment allows space for me to listen to the feeling and explore it, without immediately rushing to repress or respond.

Nothing lasts forever

Speaking of negative emotions, one of the most powerful lessons from affective science is that emotions have a fast response cycle. They evolved to help us react quickly to things in our environment, so they tend to be measured in seconds or minutes, not hours or days.

Emotions are shorter in duration than moods, which might last up to a few days or weeks, which are shorter than states of being, which last much longer. And intensity correlates to duration — emotions are much more intense than states of being, but they last a fraction of the time.

Knowing this has helped me be much more patient, both with myself and with people I love, when it comes to emotional responses. Nothing lasts forever, and if you need to sit and have a cry after losing a great job opportunity or steep in guilt for a moment when you missed someone’s birthday, that’s ok. It will pass, often sooner than you think.

This idea has also helped me when I feel down. I remember when I was younger and going through a tough time, it sometimes seemed like joy would never return. But emotions are like waves. They go up and down just like the ocean. Keeping this knowledge close during a tough time can help you trust that joy always comes back again.

Emotion vs. reason is a fiction

Earlier I mentioned that we’ve been conditioned to see emotion as inferior, but to what, exactly? The answer is reason.

Reason, or logic, is held up to be man’s highest self, stemming from a part of the brain that is uniquely developed in humans (as opposed to emotion, which sits in “lower” brain structures that we share with mammals). Emotion leads us to make rash, unconsidered decisions, while reason allows us to weigh pros and cons, take in all relevant factors, and make a clear-headed choice.

Except this isn’t how it works at all. As I shared in a recent post, reason and emotion are not separate faculties, but intertwined ones. And in fact, patients who have had damage to emotional centers of the brain aren’t better at making decisions. They often can’t make decisions at all because they can’t feel the difference between the options.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares the relationship between emotion and reason to that between an elephant (emotion) and its rider (reason). The rider believes himself to be in charge, but the elephant’s sheer bulk and force reveal that she is really running the show. Sometimes the elephant and rider are in alignment. But at other times, the elephant is driving while the rider is unconsciously rationalizing the elephant’s choices, maintaining the appearance of control without actually having it.

Knowing that emotion and reason are deeply interconnected has stopped me from trying to pull the two apart when I make decisions, and from believing that the “rational” choice is somehow better. Instead, it’s given me permission to acknowledge that emotions carry beneficial information, and lean on that in my decision-making. Asking, for example, “How will I feel in six months if I make this choice?” makes consequences feel more tangible and clear than simply laying out pros and cons.

The body leads

Just as we’ve learned (erroneously) to divide emotion from reason, we’ve also been hoodwinked by Descartes into thinking that the mind is separate from and superior to the body. But emotions continually bridge this great divide, traversing neurons, flooding our bloodstream with hormones and neurotransmitters, weaving in and out of our smooth muscles.

Understanding the relationship between emotions and the body has made me a lot more mindful of my emotional state, because I now realize it has deeper effects on my health. Allowing myself to be in an unmanaged state of anxiety for too long wreaks havoc on my posture, digestion, sleep, and even my face. (I treat those corrugator muscles — the ones in your forehead — as an early indicator of stress rising to unmanageable levels.) While there are some emotional situations I can’t control, I can avoid creating conditions that aggravate my anxiety, such as not taking on more work than I can handle.

On the other hand, I’ve also learned that emotions often surface in the body first, and then rise up to conscious awareness. This is in line with an early theory of emotions called the James-Lange theory, after William James, who is sometimes called the father of American psychology. James imagined a scenario where you might be walking in the forest and come upon a bear, at which point you feel fear and immediately run away. But which comes first: the fear, or the running away?

James suggested that the conventional wisdom that we feel fear and then run was wrong. Instead, he proposed that it was our bodily reactions to the presence of the bear — the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the engagement of our muscles, the quickening of our heart rate and breathing, the cold sweat on our palms — that came first, and it was only later that our conscious mind interpreted these sensations as fear.

The James-Lange theory has been clarified and deepened over the years as we’ve learned more about the nuances of how our unconscious and conscious responses work. But the main takeaway for me is this: often emotions begin in the body, and paying attention to the situations we put our bodies in can help us avoid unnecessary unpleasant emotions and increase our chances of experiencing pleasant ones.

For example, as someone who is sensitive to caffeine, I’ve learned that too much of it can make me feel deeply anxious. To come back to the elephant and rider analogy, the caffeine increases my heart rate, which makes the rider start to look for reasons why I might be anxious. The rationalizations come pouring in, and suddenly I’m worrying about some email I sent when in fact I should’ve just not had the second cup of tea. Other things that can trigger my anxiety? Wobbly furniture (creates a sense of instability that mimics butterflies in the stomach), too tight clothing (creates a sense of agitation), and being too cold (shivering feel like, guess what? Anxiety!). Learning to avoid these situations has helped me manage my anxiety tremendously.

On the other hand, things that increase my chances of a joyful day include: working in a space with good light (natural or artificial), having some quiet time to focus, having color and plants around, being warm enough, and wearing clothes that make me feel free. Setting my life up so that my senses and body feel good helps me create the conditions for a better emotional life.

Emotions are contagious

Just as our surroundings can influence our emotions, so too can the people around us. Many studies have now documented this phenomenon, known as emotional contagion. It has even been demonstrated in large-scale studies of populations and online through social media.

Humans seem to be hardwired to spread emotion, which we do through our facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, and language. One possible reason might be that a community aligned emotionally would be more likely to work together for the common aims of the group. The joy of a successful hunt might draw everyone together to take advantage of the windfall. The sorrow of a loss would galvanize the community to work harder to survive.

On an individual level, it’s a reminder that other people’s emotions do rub off on you. A long time ago, a friend introduced me to the concept of radiators and drains. Radiators are people who give you energy, while drains leave you feeling down about yourself or exhausted by their negativity. When you know that emotions spread in this way, taking care of yourself emotionally can mean being conscious of other people’s emotions and energy, and how you expose yourself to them. Seeking out joyful people and finding ways to spend more time with them is a valid strategy for increasing your happiness.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t be there for people who are struggling or who need your support. But if a relationship constantly leaves you feeling down, it’s worth asking whether the relationship is balanced, and whether the person in question needs more support than a friend can properly provide. Helping someone find a therapist or support group may be better for both of you than continuing to subject yourself to weekly bitch sessions over cocktails.

A place to pay special attention to emotional contagion is at work. We used to have a phrase at IDEO that I found helpful: “Don’t collude.” When someone is struggling with a difficult situation, it’s easy to pile on and get drawn into a negative swirl that extends and perpetuates the negative dynamic. “Don’t collude” is a reminder that you can listen without getting involved yourself, and create space for people to vent without adding fuel to their fire. Take it a step further by encouraging the disgruntled person to face the situation head on, and help them think through strategies for giving feedback. Doing this can help stop the spread of negativity and resentment in organizations, which can easily become toxic for a culture.

One hopeful takeaway of many of the studies on emotional contagion is that positive emotion spreads more than negative. So just bringing your own positive energy to a situation can be a way of infusing positivity into other people’s lives, in ways they may never fully realize. We sometimes have a tendency to dampen our good mood around people who are not as cheerful, so as to avoid seeming boastful or Pollyanna. But as long as you’re respectful of others’ emotions, there’s nothing wrong with expressing your genuine joy. It might even brighten up someone’s day without you even knowing it.

Small moments add up

One of the most valuable findings from my research has been learning the distinction between joy and happiness. I go into this in more detail here, but the gist is that happiness is a state of being — longer-term and more complex — whereas joy is an emotion — immediate, momentary, and visceral. We spend a lot of time in our culture focusing on happiness and the pursuit of it. Because joy seems small, it often can be dismissed as trivial and inconsequential, making it easy to overlook.

Yet focusing on joy instead of happiness has been perhaps the single most life-changing shift to come out of my work. Because joy is small, it’s accessible. I might not know how to be happy on a particular day, but I know that I can find one or two moments of joy that I might not have had otherwise. One more moment of joy every day for a year is 365 more moments of joy, and that is significant!

Research shows that small moments of joy can lead to what psychologists call upward spirals of flourishing. One reason is that in a positive mindset, we tend to notice more opportunities for positivity. One small joy can unlock the potential for many more. Joy also can increase our productivity (by up to 12%, according to one study), increase our sense of intimacy and connection in relationships, and reduce physiological signs of stress. All of these things are components of happiness that might seem hard to access. But one small joy at time can help us get there without trying so hard.

I am happy, yet I genuinely don’t think much about happiness anymore. I focus on joy, how to create more of it in my own life and in the lives of others. It might seem small, but it’s more than enough.

Image: Lidya Nada via Unsplash

February 23rd, 2020


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    Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Otiti Jasmine on February 26, 2020

    Hey Ingrid,

    Thanks for sharing your insights! I can totally relate to focusing on small moments of joy because that’s what I’ve been doing since I read Joyful, and it’s made all the difference in my daily life.

    When I focus on what I can do each day with what I have available to me, it’s easier to zoom in on the assets I have and what I can achieve with them. I think an important facet of joy (and maybe contentment?) is meeting yourself where you are and showing up in that moment anyway, even when it’d be easier to slack off or just give up.

    We can’t do as much as we want to (or feel obligated to) all the time, but we CAN do one or more little things that become small wins and eventually turn our lives around. Like you said, small wins stack up! 😀

    Peace, love, & glitter,


  2. Natalie on March 2, 2020

    This was so refreshing to read. I appreciate the science-backed evidence and message. Beautiful! Thank you.

  3. Tricia on January 8, 2021

    I have just discovered your site tonight, and your articles are wonderful! I’m sharing this with family and friends. Thank you!


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