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I was feeling a bit sluggish and tired on this Sunday morning after another week of our ‘new normal’ and the never-ending “Breaking News” cycle.  Thank goodness I have many sources of good news in my email inbox each day to add balance to my perspective.  Today’s reading was exceptionally good.

I subscribe to the 10% HAPPIER app which is a resource for meditation and offers podcasts and writings on the topic of happiness and well-being.  Today’s newsletter led with an article No Mud, No Lotus by Yael Shy.  It’s opening paragraph stayed with me all day…” The lotus flower, a symbol of awakening in Buddhist and other spiritual traditions, blooms in the muckiest, muddiest swamps. Its roots begin under the swamp water and its buds reach their way to the surface where they burst forth into stunning pink or white flowers. If you want the beauty of the lotus flower, there is no getting around the mud.”

We are still thick in the mud of this pandemic!  We desperately need the beauty of the lotus to brighten our days and lift our spirits.  Our job is to find (create?) our lotus, to find our joy.

Joy is one of 10 positive emotions identified by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a researcher and author in the field of Positive Psychology.  In her book Positivity, Dr. Fredrickson describes how experiencing positive emotions raises our positivity level and expands or broadens our awareness and attention…we can then build on this perspective. 

She describes joy as, “Your surroundings are safe and familiar.  Things are going your way—even better than expected.  At the moment the situation requires little effort on your part.  These are circumstances that spark joy. And, there are many other sources as well.  Perhaps co-workers surprised you with a birthday party. Or you open a letter to find an unexpected bonus.  Or you’re out to dinner with new friends and delighting in their good company.  Joy feels bright and light. Colors seem more vivid.  There’s a spring in your step.  And your face lights up with a smile and an inner glow.  You feel like taking it all in.  You feel playful—you want to jump in and get involved.”

I describe joy as the bubbles in champagne, making a good thing even better.

You may be reading this and thinking “That is so far from the truth right now!  Life is hard and not going my way.  Everything I’m doing is an effort, and there’s no end in sight.  I’m happy to get through my day…how can I feel playful?”

These thoughts and the feelings they elicit are true AND so is the fact that there are many things, simple things, that can bring moments of joy…even in the muddiness of today.  Remember, I’m talking small, simple pleasures that trigger feelings of momentary contentment.  Little joy-filled moments are a way to boost our mood and help offset the flood of negativity surrounding us right now. 

Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, in her poem Mindful, reminds us to look for what the day has to offer…

Mindful

Every day

     I see or hear

           something

                 that more or less

 

kills me

     with delight,

          that leaves me

                like a needle

 

in the haystack

      of light.

            It is what I was born for—

                to look, to listen,

 

to lose myself

      inside this soft world—

            to instruct myself

                 over and over

 

in joy,

     and acclamation.

           Nor am I talking

                  about the exceptional,

 

the fearful, the dreadful,

       the very extravagant—

          but of the ordinary,

                 the common, the very drab,

 

the daily presentations.

      Oh, good scholar,

            I say to myself,

                How can you help

 

but grow wise

     with such teachings

             as these—

 the untrimmable light

 

of the world,

     the ocean’s shine, 

            the prayers that are made

                  out of grass?

 

When we feel joy our body responds by releasing dopamine and serotonin, two types of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Both of these chemicals are associated with feelings of happiness.  So, when something you perceive as happy occurs, your brain receives the signal to release these chemicals into your central nervous system.  If this is how it works, can we trick our brains into releasing these chemicals to increase our feelings of wellbeing?  “In a way you can”, says Diana Samuel, MD, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.  She explains, “Smiling can trick your brain by elevating your mood, lowering your heart rate, and reducing your stress. The smile doesn’t have to be based on real emotion because faking it works as well.”   

During the height of the COVID19 crisis in NYC, Lenox Hill Hospital played the Beatles song Here Comes the Sun over the public address system every time a coronavirus patient was discharged or recovered enough to breathe off the ventilator.  The song made the over-stressed, exhausted frontline workers smile and feel good for the moment.   The times when we are feeling the worst is the exact time we need to pursue things that make us smile and feel happier.  According to Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University pursuing happiness and, more importantly, finding it, matters more during dark times.  In a recent article in AARP magazine (June/July 2020) she says, “Happiness gives us the resilience to get through.  This is a challenging time because it’s both a physical and mental health crisis.  We need to focus on happiness more now, not less.”

Doing something that feels like play to you is a great catalyst for joy. Take a hike, go for a swim, throw a ZOOM party, create a ‘happy song’ playlist and sing out loud or dance to your favorite songs, or paint a picture.  Play also encourages exploration, which is the base for knowledge and personal growth.  Play looks different for each individual, so learn what feels most playful to you and schedule time doing it.

This article When Savoring a Pleasant Moment Is a Radical Act, https://bit.ly/savoringjoy, in The Daily Good: News that Inspires, reminds us of the necessity to nurture ourselves now by seeking joy in the darkest of times.   This is just the time to seek out something that will make your heart sing and bring a smile.  We can’t fast forward out of this, we will get through this, and we need to make our own best days.