Finding Joy in Hard Times

​An exploration of practicing joy in our lives, even when circumstances are difficult.

The Happiness Trap - Free Resources

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Rosemary Cope:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness wellcast.  I'm Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections.  Our guest today is Mary Clare Champion.  Mary Clare is a Clinical Psychologist at the Vanderbilt University Counseling Center.  Thanks for joining us today, Mary Clare.
Dr. Mary Clare Champion:  My pleasure.  Thank you for having me.
Rosemary Cope:  Absolutely.  You know, listeners, I don't know about you, but I sure could use some more joy these days.  In these trying times, one can easily lose sight of joy, hope and happiness, and when the world feels like it is spiraling out of control, and all semblance of normalcy seems to be lost, holding on to positive feelings can feel like an overwhelming task.  But things don't have to be ultimately, insanely terrible for you to feel this way.  Any kind of challenging time can make you feel down and blue, resulting in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mood-related issues.  You can become unproductive, feel demotivated or just lose your spark.  Why does this happen and what can you do to fix it?  Do you ever notice that some folks always seem to have their chins up, even on the worst of days?  It's a valuable trait and it's also one that most people learn with time as a skill.  And if you are interested in learning how to do this, it's all about changing your mindset and keeping healthy habits.  Mary Clare, what is your definition of joy and is it different than happiness?
Dr. Mary Clare Champion:  So, joy, I think, is absolutely different than happiness.  We have, unfortunately, come to expect happiness as a chronic, set place that we feel happy in a general way all the time, kind of crowding out the possibility to feel other things, and that's just really not realistic in a long-term way.  And so, happiness ... I think about happiness as being almost a place to be and a place where we expect ourselves to be, or a way to be, versus joy, being something that we can find a way to experience or be able to identify in some way.  And so, while we might not be particularly happy, we can still find ways to experience and notice and identify joy.
Rosemary Cope:  Would I be correct in saying that sometimes happiness is dependent upon things that are going on around us, but joy is something that we can carry with us regardless?
Dr. Mary Clare Champion:  Yes, absolutely.  And so, we might have external factors that we're looking for to support a sense of happiness, and some of those external factors might be totally beyond our control.  And so, in an unfortunate and potentially unintentional way, we limit our ability to have that sense of feeling happy, noticing that happiness really isn't our baseline state.  To expect ourselves to be happy all the time or to have happiness as an expected baseline way of being really isn't all that realistic, versus joy is something that we do have more ability to control or name or locate or produce for ourselves in some way.
Rosemary Cope:  Makes perfect sense.  And there is research done by psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson, among others, that suggests that feeling joy during a stressful time actually challenges the negative cardiovascular effects of stress on the body, and that people who experience positive emotions amid adversity, they cope better and they are more resilient in the face of future problems, but we know we can't be happy all the time.  Sometimes, joy just goes missing.  We're human, after all, but we're wise enough to understand that we rarely have a perfect balance of well-being in all aspects of our life, and sometimes, the scales tip in a way that just makes reclaiming our joy difficult.  So, Mary Clare, can you tell us what you would suggest for people to consider doing to offset the stress of our daily lives, and how do we reclaim that joy?  And are there resiliency practices that we could use when things seem to be difficult?

Dr. Mary Clare Champion:  Sure!  I think it's, in some ways, it's a very personalized process.  So, what I might encourage someone to do is really think about for themselves - where have they noticed joy before?  What are the things that bring them joy, the people that bring them comfort, the activities that bring them joy, because if I necessarily listed the things that were pertinent or relevant to me, they might not be relevant to everybody else.  And so, one of the things that I also, which this might sound a little bit counterintuitive, but to be able to notice joy, to actually allow yourself space to identify the range of emotion.  I always call upon one of the last scenes of the Pixar masterpiece, Inside Out, where all of, you know, so much of the movie is based around joy, Amy Poehler, trying to avoid and crowd out these other emotions that are potentially difficult or not as pleasant, and, at the end of the movie, when they actually roll back one of the memories that had been kind of colored yellow for joy, when they roll back the memory, they notice that it started blue.  They notice that it started with sadness.  And when that character, when Riley allowed herself to experience the sadness, there were people that came to her and comforted her, and that comfort brought joy, and all of the sudden, the memories swirled.  And so, to think about these emotions as being really isolated, siloed kind of experiences, I think, would be a misunderstanding.  But in terms of finding joy, I think it has to be, or it can work to be a practice that you actually do practice, that you are conscious about trying to identify something in your day that brought you joy, whatever it might be.  It can be very simple things.  I could be keeping a gratitude journal.  And so, these could be from large events or bigger events or small things that we make, just make the effort to notice.  Does it mean that we are going to ignore the things that are going on that are difficult or challenging?  Absolutely not.

Rosemary Cope:  I love the Inside Out.  That's such a great movie and it tells us a lot about our own emotions, and I don't care how old you are, it is relevant.

Dr. Mary Clare Champion:  It is absolutely a movie for adults masquerading in a cartoon.

Rosemary Cope:   Absolutely.  So, thanks for bringing that up.  I think that's a great resource for our listeners also.  And, you know, the good news is that joy isn't an all-or-nothing gift, and we don't just have to wait for it to return when it goes into hiding, and even when life is bleak, we can reclaim our joy in small pieces and get back to a sense of contentment.  So, if you'd like more information about increasing your well-being or to speak confidentially with an EAP counselor, please contact us at (615) 936-1327, and Mary Clare, thank you for sharing some of your own insights about joy.

Dr. Mary Clare Champion:  My pleasure.  Thank you.
Rosemary Cope:  Thank you all for listening.  If you have a story suggestion, please use the "Contact Us" page on our website at