Generating joy: A life lesson in the face of challenge

I’ve spent a good deal of my life learning about spiritual and cultural traditions from around the world. My fascination with this area of study has been based in my desire to live with a deep sense of meaning, peacefulness, and connection to forces larger than my own limited experiences.

I have always been struck by a central tenet of many traditions: a practice of gratitude that leads to a quiet sense of joy in even the most mundane or difficult moments. This teaching has helped me understand something that seems on the surface to be counter-intuitive: a pathway to healing and moving through challenging experiences is a practice of joy.

Joy is not just a goal; it is a pathway through pain, grief, and deep challenge.

At some of the more difficult times in my life, joy has seemed elusive, even unattainable. Weighted down with worries and problems that seemed had no solutions, I could not find a way to lighten my mood. I believed that if I could get through the problems, I had a chance of experiencing happiness again in a more sustained way and, if I was very lucky, I might reach the more heightened state of joy.

And then small gifts would come to me in surprising ways. I would be outside and the warmth of the sun would touch and warm me. I would look up and see a brilliant, blue sky with a flock of birds moving by in a graceful wave above me. And I would experience a feeling of lightness in my body, an easing of tension. A momentary sense of joy. The body sensations would always surprise me and my mood would lift, my worried thoughts suspended for a moment. I would take a deep breath and feel a smile come across my face, and tension I did not know I was holding in my chest and shoulders would dissolve.

I saw these moments as small gifts that came to me, gifts which brought me gratitude, but I did not see them as something I could always create for myself.

In recent years, that has shifted. A phrase has been ringing in my ears for more than a year now: generate joy. The phrase has captivated my attention and I have become a student of how to embody this simple idea.

Science backs up this spiritual teaching. When we do things that shift our internal experience from heavier moods of sadness, anxiety, and worry to lighter states of gratitude and joy, our chemistry changes. Cells in our bodies shift and things start to move through neurotransmitters in our brains and nervous systems. Simply put, by consciously shifting our attention to things that bring even a momentary sense of joy, we put into motion our innate ability to heal ourselves.

Practical applications of this concept are now being used in parts of the medical profession. Pain management treatments for people living with chronic disorders include mindfulness techniques and activities that support people in focusing on gratitude and joy. Researchers who work with trauma survivors are seeing that activities which bring happiness and joy help people develop resilience, an essential tool in healing from traumatic experiences. Daily exercise has long been a prescription for good health, in part because it increases the levels of endorphins in our bodies, one of the hormones that induce feelings of happiness and calm.

Generate joy. The phrase sings in my mind whenever I look up at the sky or hear my children laugh. And it comes to me when life feels challenging, when I feel weighted with feelings of sadness or concern. It is a lesson I continue to learn, a daily practice, a mantra that reminds me of the power I have to create health and wellbeing for myself and others. It is infectious and can change the energy in a tense room, shift the course of a discussion, and heal physical and emotional pain.

It is important to note that generating moments of joy does not diminish or deny true pain or injustice; it empowers us to rise above and move forward with strength. It is a radical act of drawing on forces larger than our own and connecting with our innate power.

With all that is happening in our nation and world now, simple acts which empower us to rise are more important than ever. I commit to this practice, to the simple act of generating joy each day, no matter what life puts in front of me. And more each day, I understand this as a choice to live an empowered and healthy life, able to be a force for good wherever I am.


  1. Beautiful, Michelle. I experience the same simple joys- some days I have to remind myself to look for them, but most days they are abundant and remind me of how beautiful life can be in this very moment.

    1. This is a daily practice for me, one of the most important things I have learned about moving through life – the good, the challenging, and everything in between.

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