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Anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing in the United States. This started long before COVID-19, but the pandemic has worsened the situation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that anxiety and depression are epidemic; they are also pandemic, because they’re prevalent globally.

Unfortunately, our standard approach to these problems involves taking medications, which can help. But they can also produce side effects that actually feel like depression.

There’s another approach that’s rarely addressed in mental-health treatment: Support human flourishing and joy.

We believe it’s possible for anyone, no matter what you’ve dealt with before and what you’re dealing with now, to create a more joyful life. If you can go beyond recovery and prevention to what really helps you thrive, there is simply less room for depression or anxiety to find its way back in.

And so, with this Joy Lab column — based on our podcast and program of the same name (learn more at joylab.coach) — we offer ways to overcome stress or depression and to rediscover your joy. To get started, we’re delving into the four pillars we see as foundational for a joyful life.

1. Whenever Possible, Choose Joy.

Joy is part of who we are; it’s accessible to us as a birthright gift. Simply put, joy is what remains when we stop wanting things to be different than they are at this moment.

Joy comes easily — and that can feel like a paradox, because it can seem hard to achieve. Yet, in its essence, joy is less about effort and more about allowing things to be as they are. It’s less about grasping and struggling and more about letting go.

Joy also involves choice, which is where things start to feel difficult. Every moment, we are faced with a simple, straightforward choice: Where do we place our attention? What are we feeding with our mind, our awareness, our focus? We can make the choice to nourish the heart and the soul.

2. Seek to Broaden and Build.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the best-studied, most-effective approach known for mood and anxiety disorders; it can help remove obstacles to joy, like recurring, negative thoughts. But CBT can feel a bit dry when the goal is to uncover joy.

Recent developments, however, have built on CBT to create a more nourishing approach. One such method is known as the broaden-and-build model.

This comes from the work of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, and others in the field of positive psychology, who suggest that you can intentionally infuse life-giving thoughts and feelings into your mind. You can create what you might think of as a virtuous cycle that builds on itself. Feeling hopeful, for example, creates a more positive inner state than when you’re feeling fearful or pessimistic.

When you open up in this way, you broaden your experience so you can draw from a wider range of possibilities. When you’re coming from this place of greater inner strength, it’s easier to keep building the skills that lead to flourishing.

3. Become Mindful of Joy.

Research has shown that the practice of mindfulness benefits your brain health and your mood. It’s also a core skill for uncovering your joy: directing your attention to where you want it to be.

Your mind may get stuck on a particular problem with a work colleague, for ­example, creating a narrow, repetitive focus. Mindfulness allows you to step back from your emotions or impulses and ­observe the many supportive interactions you have every day with others. That can help you respond to your challenging ­colleague in a healthy way.

You do not have to become an expert at meditation or even enjoy it. You just need to see what is true and to focus more on what gives you joy.

4. Feed Your Soul.

The first three pillars to uncovering joy are all rooted in science. This fourth one is harder to quantify, but we think it’s really important.

Science and soul are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually enhancing. Bringing the science to life through things like poetry and stories is a practical way to help you connect with the deeper part of your being — the part fed by meaning and connection.

So, when you begin the practice of cultivating joy, try spending a little more time seeking out activities that feed your soul. That might involve reading novels or spiritual texts, volunteering, learning a musical instrument, or pursuing other creative or community endeavors.

This article originally appeared as “A Joyful Life” in the January/February 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Henry
Henry Emmons, MD and Aimee Prasek, PhD

Henry Emmons, MD, is an integrative psychiatrist and cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com. He is the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. Aimee Prasek, PhD,is an integrative-therapies researcher and CEO of Natural Mental Health.

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