The Joy of Celebration: 8 Unique Ways to Mark Special Moments in Life

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
joy of celebration

If there’s one surefire way to increase your joy in life, it’s this: celebrate the good things that happen to you. Life hands us a lot of lumps, and it’s easy sometimes to lose the joy amidst the juggle of work, family, and community responsibilities. During stressful times, celebration can feel frivolous or indulgent, but there are good reasons not to skip out on marking life’s special moments.

From a scientific perspective, sharing our joy with others (or capitalization, as psychologists call it), helps intensify our joy in the moment, while also increasing our long-term happiness and life satisfaction. As Charlotte Brontë once wrote in a letter, “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.”

Many of the ways that we celebrate can also have positive side effects. Celebratory gatherings serve as a form of release that dissolves tension and promotes more egalitarian behavior. Celebrations involving music or dance can also promote synchrony, a phenomenon wherein moving or singing together causes people to be more altruistic, generous, and community-minded. They can also deepen relationships between individuals. Celebrations can create a sense of shared identity and common purpose. They can highlight values you care about, such as kindness or playfulness, making others aspire to these ideals.

For more research on the joy of celebration, see Chapter 9 of my book Joyful: the Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.

The Joy of Celebration: 8 Unique Ways To Mark Special Moments In Life

Celebrations are powerful, and yet sometimes it can be hard to think of how to celebrate life other than throwing a party or going out for a nice dinner. In this post I want to share some unique ideas for ways to celebrate to inspire you to come up with your own celebratory traditions and rituals.

Among these ideas you’ll find tips for small celebrations and big ones, for introverts as well as extraverts, and for finding things to celebrate even when life isn’t exactly going your way.

make your joy visible

celebratory ritual in college

I immediately loved this celebratory ritual practiced by college students during final exams. At the start of finals, students blow up one balloon for each exam they have, and then pop one each time they finish a test. While the balloons are festive, they’re also an important signal for a community that is going through a time of both stress and celebration. When someone has a lot of balloons outside their door, it’s a sign they could use some support and quiet. No balloons? It’s time to party!

I loved reading that students cheer for each other when they hear the sound of a balloon popping. Celebration helps to amplify joy and cultivate a sense of unity, even among people who are not normally close. Joining in scattered cheers around the dorm creates the feeling that one person’s joy is everyone’s joy, and fosters a collective spirit among students.

put a spotlight on good news

Reader Patty Clark emailed to share her family’s festive ritual:

One way that my family celebrates joy is with a special red plate. When anyone in the family has some good news or accomplishment or success, that person gets to use the red plate for dinner. A simple way for the whole family to share the celebration!

What’s great about this is that it makes a celebration tangible. Giving high fives and congrats are great, but fleeting. Having something physical that makes your loved one the center of attention serves as a reminder throughout the evening that this dinner is special, that your family and friends have something to be joyful about. Your special plate or glass or whatever you choose becomes a part of your personal lore, and can be something to look forward to over time.

indulge in an Everyday luxury

Not everyone loves being the center of attention. But even if parties aren’t your speed, there are still ways to celebrate. Author Katherine May (who I recently interviewed here) celebrates the publication of a new book with a bottle of fancy hand soap. She says:

It’s extravagant, but not too much. What I like most of all is the way it keys with the mundane: every time I wash my hands, I’m reminded that something really good happened. No need to make a song and dance about it. Just a nice scent rising from the sink and a little smile to myself.

Celebrating with an everyday luxury extends the celebration out, sometimes for months. This feels especially appropriate for the completion of a long project — you worked on it for many days and nights, and now you get to have many reminders of the joy you created. This kind of celebration can also help to thwart arrival fallacy, which is the paradoxical tendency to feel let down after a big achievement, and to immediately start to look toward the next milestone in the belief that will finally be the one to make us happy.

When you extend out the celebration, you give yourself a chance to dwell in the joy of your achievement, rather than immediately moving on to what’s next.

get dressed up

Japanese students in costumes | The Joy of Celebration
Students in an array of costumes. Image via Twisted Sifter.

Festive clothing can be a tangible reminder of our joy. That might mean donning a costume, like these Kanazawa College of Art students who are allowed to accept their diploma in whatever costume they choose. Or it might just mean wearing sparkly shoes as you go about your errands on a day when you have something to celebrate.

Festive clothing puts your joy on display and invites others to ask what you’re celebrating, and join in the good vibes. And if others get dressed up with you, it creates a sense of visual harmony that reinforces your bond — and your collective joy.

Do a happy dance

It might sound silly, but there’s science to suggest that a happy dance can help heighten your joy in celebratory moments. That’s because happy dances amplify your natural expressions of joy: opening up your posture, lifting up your arms, and making energetic movements. These exaggerated expressions create a kind of feedback loop, telling your brain that you feel good and increasing the flow of neurotransmitters that signal positive emotion.

My husband Albert and I have a tradition of doing a happy dance on Friday evenings, but we also do them whenever we have good news to share.

distinguish between celebrating and bragging

Sometimes we hesitate to share good news because we worry others might think we’re bragging. But this is a shame, since sharing our joy with others not only increases the joy we gain from the experience, but also deepens our relationships with others. Reader Marlene Gallagher shared a clever way that she and her friends have gotten around this problem: sending a “joy text” to the group, marked by a special emoji.

Unique Ways to Mark Special Moments in Life

Knowing that everyone’s on the same page about the intention behind a festive share enrolls your group in your celebration, and makes it safe to share good news without worrying people might assume the worst.

Celebrate the unlikely

Most of the time, we celebrate good news. But sometimes, there are good reasons to celebrate the not-so-great moments in daily life. I found this tip via writer Jessica Grose’s New York Times newsletter, which used to be exclusively parenting-focused but now has a broader beat. She shared this story from her reader Joe Quam, in Lombard, Illinois:

At the family dinner table each day, inevitably someone would spill something — a beverage, the contents of a large serving spoon, etc. Instead of gritting our teeth in dismay and crying “not again,” we instituted a new rule that a spill required a celebratory shout of “Spill of the day!” that focused our attention and usually avoided a second spill.

One of the remarkable things about celebration is that it defuses tension. You can see this in the celebratory behavior of chimpanzees, who become markedly less hierarchical and more affectionate toward each other after celebrating. (See Franz de Waal’s work on chimpanzees for more on this.) Proactively turning moments that typically cause tension into celebrations can help prevent small conflicts from turning into big ones.

always be prepared to celebrate

confetti in pocket tweet

This extremely viral tweet is a delightful reminder of the way that children are always on the lookout for joy. While adults often get jaded and absorbed by the weight of our responsibilities, for kids, celebration might be just around the corner.

Emergency confetti is a tangible reminder to keep your eyes open for joy. It brings your attention into the present, focuses you on living life in the moment. As the saying goes, “chance favors the prepared mind” (attributed to Louis Pasteur). When you’re ready for joy to happen, you’re more likely to notice and experience it.

Do you have any unique ways to celebrate? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

September 8th, 2023


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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Grace Wood on September 8, 2023

    Hi Ingrid,
    Love this article and you work in general!

    A couple of weeks ago, I was in the hospital having a heart procedure, an ablation, to fix the arrhythmia I’ve lived with for 10 yrs. This was my 5th procedure & there have been lots of challenges over the years. Every single staff member was sweet, kind, helpful. It was such a wonderful, safe, environment that I found myself focusing on joy.

    My specialist & I had discussed music for the procedure in our initial appt & he was up for playing Motown (native Detroiter here). So at the end of the “time out” he did w/staff before the procedure in the lab, I asked about the Motown. He played my fav song, we talked Motown & the Beatles a bit, & I was out.

    I came out of the procedure still in the arrhythmia for most of the 6+ hrs I had to lie still. But then a sweet staff person came to take an EKG, which showed what I’d felt, that I was back in normal rhythm! I insisted we celebrate. She grabbed 2 apple juice boxes for a toast and I played Celebration, by Kool & the Gang, from my Fun playlist on my phone. It was a blast.

    Watching Mamma Mia! has proven to be good medicine as my heart heals. If my heart does flip out of rhythm, I celebrate with Dancing Queen once it’s back to normal. 

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on September 15, 2023

      Grace, I remember you sharing this story with me about the Motown music and I love it so much. Now I’m so happy to hear about your juice box toast and Celebration celebration. Your stories are a reminder that we celebrate with what we have where we can, and that those kinds of celebrations are all the more memorable because ot it.

  2. Amy S. on September 12, 2023

    Everyone in my family has a celebratory “secret handshake.” We each have one for each family member so that any given pairing is ready to celebrate at any given time. We use them as a “ritual of connection” as the Gottmans say, and also to mark good moments, both large and small. There’s something special about looking at someone you love and having a little celebration right there and then about how happy you are to see them.

    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on September 15, 2023

      Amy, this is such a wonderful tradition – thank you so much for sharing your custom! I’m curious how this arose. Was it spontaneous between two of you, and it spread, or did someone once have the idea to do it intentionally?


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