In January of 2018, nearly one in every four Yale freshmen gathered in a lecture hall with a common task for the semester: to learn what brings us joy. The “Psychology and the Good Life”course was created by Yale psychology professor Dr. Laurie Santos, and it has become the most popular class in the university’s 300-year history. The success of the course mirrors a broader human fascination with understanding how to experience and increase well-being in our everyday lives.
What is Joy?
When you hear the word “joy”, you might immediately think of “happiness”—indeed, it is quite common to see these words used interchangeably. However, scholars have suggested that the two terms are distinguishable. Whereas happiness is predominantly derived from external and potentially fleeting sources, joy is thought to be more sustained and reflect a sense of deep connection to something or someone we value. Joy has also been described as a response to something we have been hoping for or anticipating. For example, watching a feel-good comedy might promote our happiness, but being reunited with a loved one after a long separation can bring us joy.
Psychological Research on Joy
Although psychological research on joy has been relatively limited given the complexity of its definition, we do know about some barriers to experiencing joy in our everyday lives.
First, researchers have recognized that humans have a negativity bias, wherein we tend to pay more attention to negative things that happen to us compared to positive things. Think about the last time you had lunch with a friend—did you spend more time talking about your stresses and worries or all the positive things in your life? Although it’s important to seek out social support in times of distress, disproportionately focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive can take a toll on our well-being.
Second, humans exhibit habituation to positive events and experiences—with repeated exposure, pleasant things get less pleasant. Imagine a child who receives a new toy. Although initially overjoyed, after several days the child becomes disinterested and tosses the toy aside. Habituation helps explain why people may have trouble sustaining well-being over time.
How can we combat negativity biases and habituation to lead happier and more joyful lives? It’s important that we not only seek out social support and interaction with others when we’re struggling or when things aren’t going our way (e.g., after a breakup), but also when things are going right. For example, there is scientific evidence that people feel better on days that they tell other people about positive personal events (e.g., receiving phone call from an old friend). Additionally, expressing gratitude(i.e., what we are thankful for) can provide a helpful reminder of all the things we should appreciate in our lives.
Joy in the Connected World of Adolescents
Given the proliferation of electronic communication, it’s also important to think about how we can promote joy and happiness in an increasingly (technologically) connected world. This is especially relevant when we talk about teenagers, who are some of the most prolific users of social media.
Although adults may express widespread fears about the risks of teens online, we also know that technology and social media offer many benefits for teens. The ability to connect with others at the click of a button allows users to stay in touch with and potentially even strengthen friendships. Teens who feel lonely or isolated can also use mobile technologies as a way to more easily interact with peers and receive social support. Additionally, mobile technologies can offer adolescents opportunities to explore different personal identities and express themselves creatively, which can contribute to a stronger sense of self.
On the other hand, there are certain ways that excessive phone use and online activity can undermine adolescents’ joy and happiness. When I asked Dr. Laurie Santos, Yale professor and creator of the new Psychology and the Good Life course, about potential downsides of teen media usage, she also highlighted its effects on health and face-to-face interactions. Adolescents who spend more time on social media sleep less and sometimes even report more emotional distress (e.g., depressive symptoms). For example, whereas using social media to actively connect with others can promote well-being, a lot of passive browsing (e.g., scrolling through Instagram) can create envy and negative mood. This raises an important issue for tech developers looking to create media or apps geared at children and adolescents. Santos notes that we need to carefully “balance any benefits that come from an app [with] the downside of more phone use overall,” especially in light of evidence that increased use of mobile devices predicts less enjoyable face-to-face interactions.
So, how can we find more joy in our daily lives? Here are a few tips based on what we know from the research.
1. Keep a gratitude journal. Every day, take time to reflect on what you are grateful for and log it in a journal. Even if it’s only for five minutes, this exercise can help you keep perspective on all the things you have to appreciate in life.
2. Help others. Although there are times we are stressed out and need support from others, research shows that holding doors for strangers, doing volunteer work, and helping out our friends all contribute to better well-being, even among teens and young adults.
3. Balance online and offline time. Given that online venues offer both opportunities and risks, the question is less about whether we should spend any time online and more about how and when we’re spending time online. Disconnecting before bed might be especially important, and being intentional and cognizant about connecting rather than comparing ourselves is likely to create a more positive experience.
Hannah Schacter is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the University of Southern California Department of Psychology. Her research examines how adolescents' interpersonal relationships contribute to their health and well-being across varying social contexts. To learn more, please visit www.hannahschacter.com.
This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.