That feeling of warmth and delight that comes from experiencing little bursts of happiness has a name: joy snacking. Coined by Dr. Richard Sima, PhD, neuroscientist and columnist at The Washington Post, the idea is that experiencing sustained joy through encountering small wonders throughout the day will contribute to an overall sense of calm and happiness. He cites research published last February in the journal Nature of Human Behavior, which found that appreciating even the small occurrences of joy we encounter throughout the day can be beneficial and lend meaning to our lives.
And there are evidence-based reasons why something seemingly small, like a favorite song playing on shuffle or petting a cute dog, lifts moods.
The science of joy snacking
While the scientific study of happiness and joy is relatively new, studies have found that experiencing joy causes the brain to release chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and norepinephrine that are responsible for pleasurable feelings and happy associations with certain activities. And there are numerous mental and physical health benefits to experiencing the positive emotions that fall under the broad category of joy, like gratitude, optimism, amusement, and awe, such as lower risk of cardiac events and increased longevity.
It's human instinct to chase these feelings because "intuitively and evolutionarily we approach things that we predict or anticipate will be pleasurable and will result in joy, and we withdraw or try to escape from things that are threatening or unpleasant," says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.
However, according to Dr. Simon-Thomas, another reason joy feels so good to us is because it’s a salve for the fast pace of modern life. Because of all the commitments people have, even leisure activities—like reading for a book club—can be made more weighty by being tied up with commitments.
Additionally, Dr. Simon-Thomas adds that American society can make it feel like joy comes from material possessions primarily; she says deriving joy solely from material goods and circumstances doesn't work as a long-term strategy because it requires certain privileges to attain these things.
The fast pace of life means it's not always possible to make time for big events and happenings that make us happy, and it also means it can be tough to appreciate small joys in the moment as well. So it's important to slot in even the little moments of awe and wonder (aka joy) whenever you can.
Aside from simply experiencing the joyful moments themselves, it's key to take time to reflect and appreciate them. Studies have found that savoring, or appreciating and marinating in happy thoughts, benefits sleep and overall well-being. Reflection is an essential piece of Dr. Simon-Thomas' research through the Big Joy Project, a program that presents people around the world with brief, joy inducing exercises for seven days, and helps them learn to incorporate joy into their daily lives; part of the program involves reflections on how the micro-acts of joy made participants feel. "Taking a minute to really dwell and savor rebalances the landscape of the mental experience so you can have those important, positive moments," says Dr. Simon-Thomas. It helps to reinforce the happy emotional response you’re feeling. Over time, the more you focus on small moments of joy in your day to day, the more likely you are to seek them out and recalibrate your attention on these little moments of bliss.
How to find and recognize joy in your life
So how does one find joy exactly? According to Dr. Simon-Thomas, through practice and repetition—you don't make a habit of opening yourself up to experiencing joy without practice. And it doesn't have to be complicated; she says it could be as simple as deciding to take a 10 minute break from work to go outside and examine a cool tree, if that makes you happy.
"If you purposefully and intentionally create experiences that are more in the direction of savoring joy and social connection those experiences are going to come more readily without effort over time."—Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD
The first step is to make time for it in your schedule. Block off time in your calendar, if that's what it takes. The key, Dr. Simon-Thomas says, is to build this into your routine repeatedly so that eventually you won't have to schedule it. “If you purposefully and intentionally create experiences that are more in the direction of savoring joy and social connection those experiences are going to come more readily without effort over time,” she says.
How joy snacking for 2 weeks helped me feel happier and more fulfilled
Because the goal of joy snacking is to evaluate how tiny, unexpected things that bring me joy, make me feel, I thought it would be useful to pinpoint what these are in advance. So I started by making a list of all the little things that make me happy that I encounter in my day-to-day life.
I went as granular as I could, and ended up with a list that included some experiences I often overlook such as: opening my window to the sun in the morning, seeing my neighbors walking their dogs on my daily walks, the tulips starting to open in the garden at the end of my block, the smell of espresso and freshly-baked pastries at my favorite coffee shop, the happiness I feel when I spot my friend across the street before meeting up, etc.
Once I had an idea of what to look for, I made sure to structure my schedule so I would encounter at least several of these each day. However, I didn’t want to alter my behavior too much. I also decided to include time at the end of each week to reflect on how these little encounters with joy made me feel, and to jot down some notes at the end of each day to remember what I did. With these parameters in place, I set out to see how appreciating the little things would make me feel.
The experiment got off to a good start as I have a set morning routine that is fairly simple, but makes me happy. Parting the curtains and letting the sun through my bedroom window got me off to a great start each morning—the mood-boosting effects of sunlight being what they are.
On my daily walks, I specifically rolled by houses and neighborhoods known to have beautiful plants and architecture. Plants were starting to bloom all around Washington D.C. where I live, and I particularly find botanicals and gardens mood-boosting, so I made sure to walk on routes that would take me past artfully arranged gardens and flower beds. I also took time to sit on the patio at my local café instead of heading straight home with my coffee, and found myself chatting with other patrons and especially their dogs tied up outside. These interactions made me happy so early in the morning, and like I'd built tighter community bonds, too. I got home a bit later than usual, but that was okay because I felt more energized once I did return. I also invited my friends to join me when they could which was a nice pick-me-up.
As work ramped up during the day, it became a bit tougher to appreciate the little things. In the afternoon when I became super busy, I tried to turn to the little joys that I know make me happy, like lighting a scented candle, preparing a nourishing lunch, and tossing laundry into the machine to get a head start on my post-work to-do list. I made sure to incorporate daily walks and ate lunch away from my desk, too.
When afternoons rolled into evenings, the stressors of the outside world tested me, too—I tried to see the particularly long line at Trader Joe's not as an annoyance or inconvenience, but as an opportunity to listen to more of my podcast, catch up with my mom over the phone, and browse through the seasonal items on display more closely.
I was encouraged after a successful first week, but I found it tougher to appreciate the little things over the second half of this experiment because I was quite stressed before heading out on vacation. Staying up late tossed me off my routine, so I found that I spent one day not going outside much at all and totally locked into my computer. Cold, miserable weather didn't help motivate me, either.
Not going outside for a few days, however, greatly decreased my opportunities to experience simple pleasures, so I adjusted and made sure to put myself in the best position to encounter joy by getting back to my routine and making sure to leave the house. I repeated many of the same activities as I did in the first week, but added some new ones.
During a several-day stretch of rain, I pulled my coziest knit blanket out of my winter clothes box and put new batteries in my twinkle lights to create a comfy, amber-hued vibe in my bedroom that was perfect for watching TV and drifting to sleep. On another day after Pilates class, I decided to shower at the gym and use the available fancy bath products and salon-quality hair tools rather than sprint home to my own bathroom.
Even just this small swap had me feeling refreshed and like I'd emerged from a spa. I also made time to make my comforting meals, like soups and stews, and FaceTimed my friends while I cooked. And on my walks, I tried to savor the smell of the rain on the plants and pavement, and how it made everything sparkle.
Making these adjustments when the other small joys I'd learned to love and appreciate weren't available turned the week around quickly. By reorienting to what was accessible to me and not focusing on what wasn't, I salvaged things.
Overall, I found myself feeling lighter and more at ease during the two week period I tried joy snacking. At the end, I felt a greater sense of relief and calm than I had before I started. Experiencing these small pings of happiness helped alleviate some of the stressors of daily life, and taking time to notice and appreciate them as they came along made me feel fulfilled.
Removing the pressure to feel a sense of accomplishment felt good—building in small joys that didn't require a lot of effort or energy had a therapeutic effect on me, too. Reflecting on how this made me feel is also going to be part of my routine from now on as well. I found myself looking forward to recounting which small experiences made me happiest. I don’t plan to stop joy snacking just because the experiment is over, either. I plan to continue to fill my days with the little things that make them brighter.
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