How To Cultivate Joy

Small changes with big impacts: three research-backed tips for bringing in more joy.


Happiness is usually pitched to us as a future destination we reach once we’ve successfully nabbed that job promotion, found our perfect partner, or no longer experience depression or anxiety. But ignoring the beauty of the present as we race to some imagined, far-off point in our lives can wear on our wellbeing. That’s why we are leaning towards joy over happiness this month. Moments of joy are easier to cultivate and less threatened by experiencing “negative” emotions or challenges, like experiencing anxiety or feeling sadness. Instead, those challenges make our joyous moments more pronounced. 

As we talked about earlier this week, joy is more accessible than happiness because there’s less pressure for it to last for long periods of time. There’s no one way to feel or experience it, but that can make it trickier to know how to cultivate more joy for yourself. While I wasn’t taught how to cultivate joy in school, I think that’s starting to change for younger generations. A friend of mine actually teaches Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) at a local elementary school, where classes are specifically designed to help students develop skills around managing their emotions like feeling and showing empathy for others as well as how to feel more joy. While this fills me up with hope for the mental health of future generations, I worry that the rest of us have some catching up to do when it comes to cultivating joy.


Happiness is external and future-oriented. Joy, on the other hand, is all about making peace with who you are, where you are, and why you are. From Harvard researchers to a psychologist who is an Auschwitz survivor, feeling more joy in your life is all about focusing on “the small things” that make a big difference. 

1. Romanticize the mundane

Create an environment that inspires you. If you want to really go for it, try the spark joy method created by Marie Kondo. Kondo describes a spark of joy as “a little thrill, as if the cells in your body are slowly rising.” Cleaning your space and only surrounding yourself with items that inspire you can lead to greater mental clarity and help you appreciate the things you may sometimes take for granted. Not to be confused with Gen Z TikTok’s rebrand of Main Character Syndrome, this kind of romanticization is all about incorporating more gratitude into your life – decorating your space with objects from loved ones or pieces that make you feel grateful for past experiences, like that trip to Europe you took two years ago. Gratitude and joy are inextricably linked: throughout Brene Brown’s 12 years conducting research, she found that every single person who described their life as joyous actively practiced gratitude.The key is to make it a tangible practice, like by saying what you’re grateful for aloud before dinner or writing daily in a gratitude journal.

2. Get in touch with your inner child

Creative self-expression and play are some of the best ways to bring joyful moments into your life. Our childhood stays with us in our behaviors, beliefs, and patterns. Societal conditioning and pressures of adulthood can cause us to lose sight of our playful interests or even of our childhood selves. By accepting and interacting with our inner child, we aren’t regressing from adulthood but rather progressing towards stronger self-acceptance. The very type of acceptance we need to reach that greater sense of self-consciousness thereby linking us to experiences of joy. Oh yeah, the Joy and Emotional Fulfillment research goes there: accepting who you are in the present moment – right here, right now – is connected to your ability to experience joy. As a result, tuning into our inner child allows us to fulfill our emotional needs in the present and feel more joyous. The best way to get in touch with your inner child is tapping into your humor, creativity, and sense of wonder. Go for a walk and let yourself revel in the flowers. Dance around your living room without any shame. Play a game with a friend. Try this Inner Child Meditation. Ask your inner child questions like: What did you need as a child that you didn’t receive? How would yourself now comfort your inner child? What is a quality you had as a child you want to feel more of now? 

3. Lean into your relationships 

If I remember one thing from my Abnormal Psychology class in college (which, yes, is the most stigmatizing name for a class ever) it's that having strong interpersonal relationships is one of the most beneficial factors for your mental health. Always be mindful of who you are spending time with. After spending time with others, ask yourself: who leaves you feeling inspired, empowered, motivated, and supported? And whose presence leaves feeling drained, tired, or depleted? Recent research has shown that relationships have provided the most “valuable tangible and emotional support” during the tough times of COVID-19.