by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA
Here are some things I know about joy:
I know that joy is abundantly available and yet elusive. It arises in the doing, in the being, in the living. You can’t just decide to have more joy; you have to participate.
I know that you can’t hold onto joy. The moment you try to grasp it, it’s gone, and the routine of life returns with dirty dishes, laundry, and the work-a-day world.
I know that joy is hard to define. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming moment, a big squishy lovely rush of emotion that makes it hard to swallow. Sometimes it’s quiet and steady, like a warm, fleecy blanket.
I know that joy does not come from material things, or money, or status, or from anything external to ourselves. Joy comes from connection, meaning, laughter, play, and love.
I know that in a moment of arising joy, we are fully present, fully human, fully ourselves.
Joy & Health: A Matter of Science
But why write about joy in a blog devoted to promoting Health At Every Size® ideas? In my blog post last month, I promised (threatened?) to explore the multi-dimensional nature of health. When I contemplated where to start, I kept coming back to one of my core beliefs about health: the importance of joy. And because we don’t talk much about “beliefs” in the HAES community, I decided to investigate the research.
My search of the medical databases for articles about joy and health revealed the existence of a large number of medical researchers with the first or last name of Joy, but few reported studies. The emerging science of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is making headway in demonstrating the power and importance of what we intuitively describe as the “mind-body connection,” but PNI studies tend to focus on negative influences upon health such as stress or depression rather than focusing on positive influences such as joy.
I found some evidence (mostly in the psychology databases) of a relationship between positive emotions and health. One study differentiated between “joy” and “interest” in older adults. While interest (defined as engagement or curiosity) was not associated with any effect upon health, joy was positively correlated with both lower morbidity and lower mortality. Joy is also associated with many aspects of well-being, including feelings of vigor, strength, confidence, and competency (p. 53).
A Sense of Coherence
Experiencing joy also facilitates the lasting development of physical, intellectual, and social skills, according to an article in the Review of General Psychology: “Importantly, these new resources are durable and can be drawn on later, long after the instigating experience of joy has subsided” (p. 305). And it turns out, these skills are essential to good health. Israeli sociologist Aaron Antonovsky developed a theory of “salutogenesis” (origins of health) based on his work with Holocaust survivors. He found that individuals with a strong “sense of coherence” fostered by what he called “generalized resistance resources” (GRRs) enjoyed better health. High levels of GRRs, namely physical, intellectual, and emotional skills that facilitate coping and a positive outlook, are consistent with higher levels of health and longevity. How great is it that we can develop these skills by opening ourselves to joy?
One qualitative study, titled “Joy Without Demands,” looked at the use of clowns with children in hospitals. Putting aside my personal issues with clowns (long story), the article highlighted for me the way in which the experience of joy takes us out of our conditioned existence and into the present moment:
This joy without demands does not put the child under any obligation. There is only the “here-and-now,” which promotes the feeling of freedom from demands and counter-demands. The hospital clowns require nothing in return—they are simply there and provide what the child needs. The question is whether this helps the child “just be” who he/she is deep down—a child free from disease and suffering. When no demands are made on the child to be good, cooperate, be brave, or look happy, “a safe area” for recovery is created.
This “safe area” of joy transcends our cultural experiences of being judged and self-judgment, of striving to live up to expectations, and our experiences of stigma, bias, and low self-esteem. The joy brought by the clowns offered the children a place where the “otherness” of illness and disease was irrelevant. The article also noted how joy equalized the otherness of their bodies: “In the relaxed state of joy, the hospital clowns acknowledge and affirm the children as well as the staff: ‘You are seen and accepted just the way you are, your entire body too!’’’ For those of us whose bodies are culturally constructed as transgressive, the idea that joy offers a path to body acceptance is inspiring.
More Than a Means to Lifestyle Change
Surgeon General Regina Benjamin recorded a New Year’s message in early January 2012 exhorting us to “Put the Joy Back Into Health.” [Caution: this video does contain one regrettable reference to “wanting to fit into a smaller pair of jeans.”] This short video contains a positive public health message, no doubt. Nevertheless, Dr. Benjamin’s exhortation to “never underestimate the power of joy in health” is couched in terms of making lifestyle changes. To me, this leaves something out of the equation.
Similarly, Dean Ornish talks about using joy as a way to motivate people to engage in sustainable lifestyle changes: “Joy and love are powerful, sustainable motivators, but fear and deprivation are not.” I don’t disagree with this statement, but I believe that the importance of joy goes beyond motivating us to eat well or exercise. These instrumental arguments obscure the true importance of joy.
Joy & Health: A Matter of Faith
This may be heresy in a community that advocates for an evidence-based approach to health, but here goes: maybe what is really important about the connection between joy and health goes beyond what we can prove with medical and psychological studies and beyond the instrumental notion that joy motivates us to eat our veggies or go for a walk.
Einstein is credited with saying “everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” There is a dimension of health that transcends what can be studied or measured. Joy speaks to that dimension.
When it comes down to it, I am advocating for joy as a matter of both science and faith. There is science to back up claims that joy is important for health and well-being. And the truth is, even if there were no science to back it up, I would still be a huge fan of joy.