How to Live a More Joyful Life

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By Alice Clarke

Christians are supposed to be the most joyful people, right?

I’m fairly good at telling people what joy isn’t. Joy isn’t just a happy feeling. Joy is not about your circumstances. I’ve heard others say that in church again and again. Perhaps it’s about time we learn what joy really is so that we can take hold of it and have more of it.

Joy is important to God, so it should be important to us

Take a look at some of these familiar Bible verses on joy:

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10b KJV)

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” (Psalms 30:5 KJV)

“These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.” (John 15:11 KJV)

“Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.” (Hebrews 12:2 KJV)

Joy is clearly not weak. It was the motivator for Jesus to go to the cross. God’s joy is the thing that makes us strong. Joy is important to God, and to our relationship with him.

How joy changes you

A few months ago I interviewed Murray and Ash Smith, lead pastors of Catch The Fire Raleigh. Murray talked about the value of joy in their lives, “It’s more than just fun. I think it’s actually a powerful healing mechanism, actually to really learn to live in joy... it’s that God is always happy to be with us.”

The Smiths have taken joy based training called Thrive. It was created by Life Model, a group of counsellors, scientists and trainers who have seen first hand how joy transforms lives. Most of us work on changing our behaviour by force of will, but Life Model’s research suggests that joy is a much better motivator.

In his article Joy Changes Everything, Jim Wilder one of the creators of Life Model said, “The brain is wired to change character directly from the love and attachment end of the brain. These in turn are hardwired to grow from joy. Joy-based character change always moves us in the direction of being more like the One we love.”

In their work with addicts, trauma and abuse survivors, the Life Model team, “discovered a remarkable reduction in crises and the need for hospitalization when trauma and abuse survivors changed their main goal from dealing with trauma to building joyful lives.” (Life Model website)

Most of us aren’t very good at holding on to joy

Have you ever had a great, joyful, connected moment and then found just minutes later that you’re distracted again by something stressful? Have you wondered how to keep hold of the joy-moments rather than them dissipating in the face of annoying or difficult things?

I spoke to JoAnn Alexander, who leads Thrive training at Catch The Fire Raleigh. She explained that most of us have a low capacity for joy because it just wasn’t built into us. We learn the ability to maintain joy from our parents, so if they didn’t have the tools, then we won’t either.

“The brain gets stuck in the big 6 emotions: fear, sadness, disgust, shame, anger,” said JoAnn. If you don’t have the capacity to process what’s happening that day, whether it’s a disappointment, or a deeper trauma, and to return to joy, then you stay in that negative place all the time.

Here’s what you can do about it

If you find yourself stuck in that negative rut all too often, the good news is that you can retrain your brain. Your brain is moldable and can respond to new ways of thinking and processing emotions.

Life Model have discovered that joy is intrinsically linked to rest and quiet. Learning to balance joy and quiet is key to developing a healthy emotional life. “We’re releasing dopamine when we’re experiencing joy, and serotonin when we’re experiencing rest,” said JoAnn.

Learning to practice rest and joy as a daily rhythm teaches us to handle fear, sadness, disgust, shame and anger and to recover quickly from them.

How to practice rest and joy

So how can you get good at tapping into the rhythm of rest and joy,  and learn to return to joy quickly? Here are some tools to start:

  • Check in with yourself - ask yourself regularly how you’re feeling. How does your body feel in a good moment? Has a stressful situation been making you feel more tired? As you become more self-aware, you’ll get better at learning what you need to do to return to joy from negativity.

  • Attune with others - rather than hearing a friend’s problem and giving them a four-step solution, or a handy Bible verse, taking time to relate to them in their struggle and return to joy together keeps you connected.

  • Learn to manage overwhelm - it’s easy to tell when someone else is overwhelmed. They emanate it until you probably start to feel overwhelmed too. Managing overwhelm is about learning how to respond when you’re over your head, or when someone around you is projecting their stress.

Learning to thrive

Returning to joy is just one step in Thrive training. You can find out more about Thrive and the tools you can use to retrain your brain and find more wholeness here.

If you’re interested in finding out about your joy capacity, try Life Model’s JoyQ test.