Find Joy Each Day for Good Mental Health

By Drs. Erika London Bocknek and Lauren Mims

In the New York Times “Parenting” section in April of 2020, a month after lockdowns began across the country in response to COVID-19, the writer, and activist, A. Rochaun Meadow-Fernandez, wrote about the importance of teaching young Black children joy as healing justice, resistance to racism, and to build capacity for coping and emotion regulation. This concept is oft-discussed within the Black community and on social media, with growing recognition of the important role of joy in buffering the risk of stress and trauma on mental health. Joy is not only happiness, it is the kind of positive emotional experience that connects us to others and to the best parts of ourselves.

Joy is a core emotion and one of the first that babies ever manifest. It is both derived from high-quality early relationships and is the catalyst for the development of primary relationships. Children experience joy in relation to others, through laughter, song, and play, and they use that joy to continue bonding to people who will support and care for them. Joy and early relationships support shared positive identity and family connections, underscoring the development of positive mental health. Beyond childhood, joy is our most adaptive resource to interrupt the toxicity of stress on our mental health outcomes. This is because joy can be intentional and it can exist alongside sadness without the need to try to suppress negative emotionality, the latter being a goal that is often unachievable when stress is high and or mental health problems are longstanding.

In our work, we find that joy promotes positive feelings in the moment. Moreover, patterns of joy create a mental health toolkit we can access over time. When we cultivate joyful experiences, it helps us regulate stress and cultivate relationships with the people around us. In this period of particularly high and widespread stress, we encourage individuals to seek 20 minutes of joy each day for health. We suggest listening to a favorite song, sharing a comforting meal with loved ones (remotely or in your household), going for a snowy walk, or revisiting a childhood favorite, like coloring, playing a board game, or blowing bubbles. Play, in its many forms, is a particularly salient way to promote joy while interacting with family and friends. Even creatively organized, physically distanced games like jump rope competitions can serve this purpose. While these acts are less often prescribed for mental health, and perhaps can even sound trivial, our research shows that acts of joy, especially in the context of family processes, buffer the impact of serious mental health problems like posttraumatic stress disorder, and promote optimal strategies for regulating stressful experiences.

Erika London Bocknek, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Educational Psychology, at Wayne State University.

Lauren Mims, PhD, is an Assistant Professor,  Educational Psychology, at Ball State University.