How to find small moments of joy in dark times

Ssometimes the smallest moments of joy are the only ones that feel possible. That’s what Nora McInerney learned in 2014 when she lost her husband of 35 years and her father to cancer and her second baby to a miscarriage — all within eight weeks.

Her husband, Aaron, was “a naturally vibrant person,” says McInerney, who hosts the podcast Terrible, thanks for asking and author of the forthcoming book Just a bad mood. “He just had this unearthly ability to find the fun and joy in everything,” she says. “I learned from him the importance of staying as present as possible in the moment, even when the moment is bad. Even when he was literally dying, he could make me laugh. (Among Aaron’s last words to his wife: “I’ll always be with you … so you need to stop picking your nose.”)

It was a moment she remembered with ease, plucked from an unbearable time. Over the past few years—plagued by political strife, social unrest, and, well, a downright plague—many of us have struggled to even briefly escape the gloom. But experts say that incorporating just a little joy into our lives can disproportionately improve our well-being by reducing the risk of chronic diseases, strengthening the immune systemand combat stress.

“I think sometimes joy feels like a really big emotion — like crazy happiness,” says McInerney. “But it may be a small light in the darkness. You don’t have to turn on the light in the dark.’

Remind me – what is joy again?

Joy is a state of feeling free, safe, and at ease. Unlike some other positive emotions, such as compassion and contentment, the experience of joy often depends on preparation for it rather than a spontaneous feeling, says Philip S. Watkins, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University who has authored many of the leading scientific papers of joy.

One of the best ways to create joy is to strengthen connections with friends and family. “The most intense joyful experiences are probably experienced in relationships,” he says. Filling your life with meaningful purpose and purpose is also essential, Watkins notes, as is cultivating an open mind — and not just to the good stuff. “If you’re open to joy, you have to be open to disappointment,” he says. “Paradoxically, in terms of experiencing joy, there must be a desire to experience loss and sadness.”

If you’re not sure how to spark joy, start with some self-reflection, advises Bree Scolaro, a licensed social worker and co-director of New York-based, LGBTQ-focused Aspire Psychotherapy. First, take inventory of what joy means to you and when you last experienced it. Ask yourself: What prevents you from feeling joyful?

Then remember your favorite, happiest moments. This will trigger some of that same joyful energy (just as reflecting on sad memories will make you feel upset). It will also tell you how to achieve more joy in the future.

Then, “make a plan to bridge the gap between what you know brings you joy and what you feel right now,” Scolaro says. What actionable steps can you take today to increase your chances of experiencing joy?

Finally, make sure you’re present enough to bask in joy when it washes over you. “Are you listening to your friends talking? Do you taste the beer you drink? You have to be able to register the joy,” Scolaro says. “Joy is in the moment. Building capacity to return to the present moment – as in meditation– is the best way I can think of to attend to the joy.”

Here are some ways to achieve small moments of joy in dark times.


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Make a joy bucket list

Robin Shear, a life coach, lecturer and author based in Detroit, has an emergency plan for those inevitable moments when everything feels terrible. Instead of spiraling—and it would be so easy to get on the merry-go-round of doom—she turns to her “joy bucket list,” a collection of all the things that make her happy: test driving fast cars, spontaneous , sharing new experiences with his family. She suggests others do the same by keeping it on their phone or somewhere easily accessible.

Having a physical reminder is helpful “because there will be times in your life when you don’t feel joy. When life really hurts – and when you need to pick yourself up from it – it can be hard to think about what will bring you joy again,” Shear says. “If you’ve already done the work and made your list on a piece of paper, you’ll find it’s much less of a challenge.”

Incorporate daily habits that you look forward to

Every morning, Deborah J. Kohan drinks a cup of coffee in a colorful ceramic mug. She begins to look forward to it the night before. Another favorite part of her day: going for a night swim under the stars. “I think there’s something about joy that’s multisensory,” says Cohan, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. “You smell it, you taste it, you see it—it’s a heightened sensory experience.” Think of ways to plan pleasant habits into your day. Then enjoy their anticipation, because that’s part of the magic.

Find a nice way to express gratitude

there is strong research showing that gratitude fuels well-being. But sometimes it feels like too much of a stretch — or, as McInerney puts it, like “a blunt force object to coerce people into a better attitude.” If keeping a gratitude journal or otherwise expressing gratitude isn’t a path to joy for you, consider more creative ways to reflect on and appreciate the good parts of your life.

When McInerney’s son broke his arm just before summer, he was sentenced to a giant cast that left him unable to swim or participate in other fun activities. “The day he took it off, he said, ‘Say goodbye to my cast, Gerald,'” she says — revealing that even in an awkward situation, her son created a cute, funny nickname for his orthopedic device. It reminded her to find something light-hearted and funny in every bad situation. Now she’s looking for an “everyday Gerald,” or one little thing that’s good even on a bad day.

Take a short “break” every day

You’re never too old for a vacation—a sentiment backed by enough research. Even short amounts of physical activity, in particular, can lift your spirits and reduce the risk of depression. Shear likes to schedule a 5- or 10-minute play session once or twice a day. “It’s a meeting with yourself. And every time that time comes, you stop what you’re doing and spend a few minutes doing whatever makes you feel good,” she says. Shear has spent the holidays hula-hooping, for example, and likes to set a fun ringtone on her phone to let her know it’s time to go—the grown-up version of the vacation bell.

Search for a connection

When McInerney is lost in a black hole of darkness, she calls someone she loves. The conversation may only last a few minutes, but it’s enough to lift her up.

When she’s especially overwhelmed, she looks for other small, tangible ways to connect: If she goes for a walk, she’ll try to catch someone’s eye. Or he can send a card to a friend. “Anything I do to feel connected to other people is really helpful,” she says.

Dance it out

Music is a reliable way to induce a few minutes of joy, says Melanie Hart, a psychologist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She suggests making a happiness playlist full of upbeat, uplifting songs that make you want to give up on the move, and then turning it on whenever your mood starts to take a nosedive. “I dare anyone to go on YouTube and watch Pharrell Williams Happy or to Sarah Barrey brave and don’t feel a little better’—or give up your gloom and start dancing, she says.

Help someone or something

Healthy research shows that helping other people or getting involved in a cause that is important to you is related to well-being. Look for an opportunity to give back, even in a small way: by planting a tree, donating blood, or contributing to a friend’s online fundraiser. “It can help us get out of our scary little minds and onto something more important,” says Hart. “And it can also help catalyze an unexpected moment of joy. You never know when that will happen.”

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