When Everything Sucks, Rehearse Your Joy

Like a muscle, your ability to feel pleasure can deteriorate if you don’t use it

I keep a running mental list of things that make me belly laugh: videos of my kids when they were babies; old episodes of Impractical Jokers; a spontaneous FaceTime call with my best friend from college. When I catch myself slipping into doom and gloom, I pick one — not as a way to bypass my emotions, but to make sure I don’t forget how to feel them in the first place.

There’s a time for sadness and anger, and these days, it seems to be 24/7. Summoning joy, on the other hand, hasn’t felt so easy for a while now. As we round the year mark of the pandemic, even the ability to cry-laugh at Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar with a glass of pinot in hand feels hard to access.

But what if your well-being hinges on those few-and-far-between feel-good moments? In a recent chat with Natalie Dattilo, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, I learned just how important those small doses of lightness really are. When negativity is so readily available, it’s extra important not to let joy fall by the wayside — not just for your immediate mental health, but for your long-term brain function.

If you’ve ever been depressed, you might know what it’s like to feel disconnected from things that used to make you happy. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, is a hallmark symptom of depression. But according to Dattilo, lack of pleasure can also be a predictor of a depressed mood. Lapses in pleasure-seeking and feeling can actually impair the brain’s reward systems, like a muscle deteriorating in strength when you don’t use it. On the flip side, experiences of joy — even small, rehearsed ones — can keep those pathways strong.

I think of it as a joy workout: I don’t always feel like going to the gym, but I know over time, I’ll be healthier if I get off my butt and go. The same is true for infusing your life with things that bring happiness. Studies have shown that doing the feel-good thing before you actually want to — which psychologists call behavioral activation — can keep those reward circuits active and functional.

That doesn’t mean, of course, ignoring your pain or forcing gratitude when life feels unbearable. But if you catch yourself mentally veering toward negativity on autopilot, create a routine of rewarding yourself with things you can mindfully derive pleasure from. Buy the expensive wine or chocolate, even if it feels unnecessarily indulgent. Turn on the movie everybody’s been posting about when you’d rather hole up in bed. Call up the friend who makes you laugh without fail. What you nurture will, over time, become your nature — and if I have to pick, I’m going with joy.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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