While avoidance of anxiety, stress and sadness can provide temporary relief, intentionally focusing on generating joy can be a proactive way to not just curb negative affect, but also generate positive emotions like joy. It can also make unpleasant feelings around stress become more manageable by acknowledging negative emotions and providing us with the capacity to experience, negotiate them and see them as the temporary emotions that they are.
Fortunately, our brain has the same capacity to generate and hold on to joy and empathy just like it can become ‘stuck’ in fear or sadness. However, much like we can help train our brain to fear and embrace negative affect, it takes brain training to teach our brain to generate joy. One way that we can do that is called positive empathy. This is done through sharing, celebrating and enjoying positive emotions, which can, in turn, increase individual well-being and connectedness. Simply put – even witnessing other people’s joy can decrease our own levels of stress. Why? Because people’s brains do things that they are accustomed to doing and seeing. When someone is used to being negatively judgmental, they get really good at negatively judging people and situations and noticing negative affect. As a person becomes practiced at noticing things where they should be thankful, they become really good at practicing gratitude and noticing joy.
Gratitude, all by itself, can create and sustain joy through the shear act of expressing our appreciation or thanks to another person. Want a quick experiment? Try asking for a manager at a store or restaurant to express thanks for receiving good service and notice if your mood shifts with the simple act of articulating gratitude toward another. Instilling the power of gratitude in kids can help create appreciation, broaden perspective, increase social connectivity, promote better grades and enhance satisfaction with school, family and friendships. Schools can benefit through instilling gratitude among their students and teachers. Simple classroom-based exercises can reduce social isolation, decrease rates of depression and anxiety and create a sense of community and belonging.