The Subtle Art of Finding Joy

An underresearched but vital emotion: joy is something we need to pay attention to.

Jan 28 · 5 min read
Photo by Preslie Hirsch on Unsplash

For every person who says joy and happiness are the same things, another says they are vastly different. I believe there is a difference between the two, but what exactly that difference is and how we definitively define it, well, that’s a wide-open field of thought.

One thing that many people, psychologists included, do agree on is that happiness is an experience that has many measurable factors. There is a wide range of psychologically proven activities, behaviours, and characteristics that feed directly into our ability to acknowledge, experience, and label happiness.

Joy, on the other hand? Much less researched and far more ambiguous to say for sure the factors that create or detract from it.

The Psychology of Joy

Joy is often referenced as an emotion that sits on the spectrum of happiness. Psychologists cite joy as being at the top end of the scale regarding how we experience positive emotions.

Research has found experiencing joy promotes several positive health benefits, including a healthier brain, increased immune system, and a healthier heart.

6 Types of Joy

Stephanie Harrison, the founder of The New Happy and Positive Psychology Academic, has sought to ‘unfuzz’ the research around joy and created what she refers to as ‘six paths to joy’. These paths, she advises, are ways to better explore and invite more joy into our lives.

Here’s what they are:

  1. The Joy of Senses: the taste of food, the sound of music, the feeling of touch, the sight of beauty.
  2. The Joy of Growth: focusing hard to learn something, listening hard to give, or putting a good day’s work in, the feeling of overcoming challenges and of pride in achievements
  3. The Joy of Awe: being connected to things so big that we feel small, like family, community, country, nature, and faith, of witnessing beautiful gestures and acts of kindness
  4. The Joy of Relationships: being seen, seeing others being helped and helping, holding and being held, of love
  5. The Joy of Play: of laughter, of amusement, of excitement, of silliness
  6. The Joy of Being You: taking what you’re great at and offering it up to others

A More Poetic Definition

While psychology definitions are great to help us learn, they certainly lack some of the more poetical and nuanced ideas behind our experiences of joy. I’m particularly fond of the way poet Kahlil Gibran expresses the feeling of joy:

“Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

I love this idea of joy as being something that is always with us, a well within, waiting for us to tap back into it when we need to. Joy seems to be an emotion that can share space with some of the other more complex feelings we go through: sadness, shame, fear, and perhaps even anger.

Personally, joy for me is all about feeling connected; to ourselves, to each other, to nature. There’s something truly wonderful about finding those moments in life that help us realise we are part of something more. I realised recently I’ve become so focused on the hustle of my life that there wasn’t much room for joy. So, I set myself a little challenge.

A Week of Joy

Over the past week, I went on a tiny mission: stop and take note when I experienced joy.

I live a contented life, with everything I need, so what about joy? What is here in my life giving me joy and even more importantly, what pockets of daily joy might I missing out on by simply not paying attention?

Here’s what I found:

  • Joy is the way my partner calls me when he’s leaving work, simply to say he’s coming home and he loves me. Every day. Without fail.
  • Joy is when the river is calm as the sun’s setting, and I get to see the beautiful mountain view before me twice — in front of me and reflected in the water — on my evening walk.
  • Joy is the bush in my garden blooming in Winter and taking the time to research what the flowers are, and if they need any assistance.
  • Joy is a friend FaceTiming me unexpectedly while a song that connects us plays on the radio and we get to jump and sing together like idiots even though we’re half a world apart.
  • Joy is a new friend calling me on our shared day off asking if I want to hang-out and spending the afternoon becoming not-so-new friends through shared storytelling and laughing so hard we cry.
  • Joy is Sunday morning. Waking up to make coffee and taking it back to bed to read while both my partner and dog snooze contentedly on either side of me. Knowing if this is what my world of Sundays is to look like for the rest of my life, I’ll keep it.

Joy is the little moments that catch you out. It’s the everyday things that we often take for granted. It’s the unique things in your life that remind you, no matter what has happened at work, or who you are missing, or where you think you are failing, there is always joy.

Joy is the thread between your head and your heart finding peak balance. If only for a second.

And most of all, joy is an experience to be present with. Joy is a low constant hum.

You hear it when you pay attention.

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Don’t Hesitate, by Mary Oliver


‘Listen — are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?’ ~ Mary Oliver


Written by


Psychology & Health Writer | Psychologist-in-Training | Careers Educator | Covering: Careers with Purpose, Positive Psychology + Creative Living without the BS


(Un)Consciously: Exploring common psychology concepts for modern life to help you live more consciously.


Written by


Psychology & Health Writer | Psychologist-in-Training | Careers Educator | Covering: Careers with Purpose, Positive Psychology + Creative Living without the BS


(Un)Consciously: Exploring common psychology concepts for modern life to help you live more consciously.

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