When we’re having fun and experiencing true joy, we feel good, usually both mentally and physically. Let’s learn how joy affects health.
Experiencing joy releases the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, are major plays for creating a happy mood and a relaxed well-being. These chemicals are released into your central nervous system which influences the rest of your body, such as digestion, sleep, and your heart. Feeling happy and joyful can boost your immune system, reduce stress, reduce inflammation and pain, improve sleep, and support healthy aging.
Pretty powerful emotions, right? In the same vein we must remember that fear, anger, and sadness can also impact these same body systems just as strongly, but in a negative way.
Research Shows Negative Emotions Impact Mental Health
Harvard researchers looked at how negative emotions impact heart health and inflammation. They report, “Serious, sustained stress or fear can alter biological systems in a way that, over time, adds up to ‘wear and tear’ and, eventually, illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation.”
That’s sounds detrimental, right? Yet, when you’re sick it’s hard to break the pattern of negative thoughts, even though our thoughts are so impactful.
When you’re feeling sick it’s easy and understandable to have negative thoughts. When illness goes on for weeks, months or years it’s natural to hyper-focus on your symptoms which brings up emotions such as fear, frustration, and depression.
Dr Bruce Lipton’s book, Biology of Belief is a great read on this subject. It explains the science behind how our trillions of cells respond to our environment, including our thoughts.
After 2 COVID infections I experienced a sudden onset of completely weird symptoms which lasted for months. It forced me to find different ways of healing. My new strategy is experiencing more joy.
Joy is Necessary for Survival
During her TED Talk, presenter Ingrid Fetell Lee, said scientists define joy as “an intense momentary experience of positive emotion; that makes you want to smile, laugh and want to jump up and down.” Lee explains that joy is connected to our insight for survival: a drive towards joy is the drive towards life.
I equate joy with feeling good in the moment. I remember a specific time snowboarding with a close friend. It was one of those perfect powder days and we were just having fun, even hooting, and hollering with glee. After one particular run she said, “now that’s pure joy.” This friend is no longer alive. I miss her a lot and I love that one of my memories with her was a moment of pure joy. If only that feeling could be bottled up and then we could see how joy affects health.
Ideas to Experience Joy
You will need to find your own specific types of joy but here’s what I’m doing for some ideas:
- Mid-week hikes with my dog; ditching my computer and getting outside on a Wednesday afternoon has been so lovely. Exercise releases endorphins and sunshine increases vitamin D which improves mood and your immune health.
- Djembe drum classes. I’ve never played an instrument before in my life, yet this feels so natural. It’s fun, sounds cool, is meditative and I’ve met a great new community of folks.
- Art classes. I took a macrame class this winter and am planning to attend a stained-glass making class this summer. Find classes through your local city’s recreation center or art center. The two I mentioned are through the City of Longmont. I’ve also taken classes through City of Boulder. I’m searching for a pottery class next.
- Spending less time on screens. Period.
- Saying ‘no’ to things that don’t bring me joy (to a point, of course I still must reconcile my bank accounts).
- Saying ‘yes’ more often to interesting events. I joined the Absolutely Absurd April Fool’s Day Parade. It was absurdly hilarious.
- Digging in the dirt is very grounding too.
- I hope to get back into Spanish classes and eventually Italian.
A recent NPR article highlighted tips for staying optimistic, also important when healing. A simple smile or finding some humor can go a long way.
I do feel better. I am healing. When things are not going according to plan, you must change the plan. I expected to heal up from the first COVID infection without question, when that didn’t happen, I had to rewrite some rules. It’s still a work in progress as are all health journeys.
If joy reduces inflammation and stress and improves sleep your body’s natural healing process can occur. Plus feeling joy just plain feels good. When our mood improves, we feel more confident and optimistic, which again is where healing takes place. I believe this is how joy affects health.
So, find your joy and do it often.
Wishing you healing,