How to Unlock the Gift of Joy

Photo by Dennis J Coughlin

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After spending years interviewing people and collecting research, Brené Brown discovered something important; the people who experienced joy always practised gratitude. There were no exceptions.

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené writes:

“One of the most profound changes in my life happened when I got my head around the relationship between gratitude and joy. Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practised gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”

The Connection to Gratitude

Brené defines joy as:

“…a light that fills you with hope and faith and love.”

While being interviewed by Oprah, Brené spoke about the promise she made to herself once she completed her research; she would never speak about gratitude again without speaking about joy. The two are so connected that if you are talking about one, then you must talk about the other.

If we want to experience joy in our lives then we have to practice gratitude each and every day. It is not about having a simple “attitude of gratitude”, as Brené used to think. Take her experience with yoga for example:

“…it would be reasonable to say that I have a yoga attitude. I value mindfulness, breathing, and the body-mind-spirit connection. I even have yoga outfits. But, let me assure you, my yoga attitude and outfits don’t mean jack if you put me on a yoga mat and ask me to stand on my head or strike a pose. As I’m sitting here writing this, I’ve never practised yoga.”

The act of getting up and getting it done is what makes the difference. We can know the theory of gratitude in our minds and understand its importance, yet without action, we will never experience the benefits of gratitude.

In that same interview with Oprah, Brené also admitted that gratitude is a hard practice. You have to form a daily habit and that’s never going to be easy. Like anything else that is good for you, you have to do it on those rainy mornings when it’s the last thing on your mind and then do it again when you get home from a long day at work and the kids are bouncing off the walls.

Brené sums it up when she writes:

“It seems that gratitude without practice may be a little like faith without works—it’s not alive.”

The Difference Between Happiness and Joy

On the flip side, it is also important to define what joy is not; joy is not happiness.

In Brené’s interviews, people would say:

“Being grateful and joyful doesn’t mean that I’m happy all of the time.”

Brené goes on to explain that:

“Happiness is tied to circumstance and joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude.”

In other words, our happiness is affected by the random up and downs we all experience. Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper. Joy is not dependent on the traffic on the way to work or the long line in the grocery store. Joy is tied to our more profound understanding of life.

Brené quotes Anne Robertson, who explains that:

“…the Greek word for happiness is Makarios, which was used to describe the freedom of the rich from normal cares and worries, or to describe a person who received some form of good fortune, such as money or health.”

Brené compares this with the Greek word for joy which is chairo:

“Chairo was described by the ancient Greeks as the culmination of being and the good mood of the soul.“

Brené explains why we need both happiness and joy in our lives:

“I think it’s important to create and recognize the experiences that make us happy. But in addition to creating happiness in our lives, I’ve learned that we need to cultivate the spiritual practices that lead to joyfulness, especially gratitude. In my own life, I’d like to experience more happiness, but I want to live from a place of gratitude and joy.”

What Stops Our Joy?

“Joy is not a constant. It comes to us in moments—often ordinary moments. Sometimes we miss out on the bursts of joy because we’re too busy chasing down extraordinary moments.”

We might have a tendency to procrastinate when it comes to gratitude. We decide we’ll be grateful once we hear about that big job offer or we’ll be grateful once when we find that perfect new home.

Instead, we need to remind ourselves to be grateful in the mundane moments of everyday life. Today I will be grateful that the sun in shining. Today I will be grateful because I have 3 healthy children.

There is also the chance of missing on joy due to our fear:

“…we’re so afraid of the dark that we don’t dare let ourselves enjoy the light.”


“We think to ourselves: I’m not going to allow myself to feel this joy because I know it won’t last. Acknowledging how grateful I am is an invitation for disaster. I’d rather not be joyful than have to wait for the other shoe to drop.”

At times, we might find ourselves waiting for the other shoe to drop. When everything’s going right, a thought creeps up which says that disaster must be right around the corner. Brené refers to that feeling as “foreboding joy”. We start rehearsing for the disaster that is sure to appear at any moment. “How can things be this perfect?” we ask ourselves. “This can’t last.”

Brené shares how she would experience foreboding joy while watching over her children:

“For years, my fear of something terrible happening to my children actually prevented me from fully embracing joy and gratitude. Every time I came too close to softening into sheer joyfulness about my children and how much I love them, I’d picture something terrible happening; I’d picture losing everything in a flash.”

All of this comes from our fear and vulnerability. The trick to combat this fear is, once again, gratitude. Brené found that joyful people use these moments as a reminder to practice gratitude. Instead of fearing the worse, they appreciate the best. Appreciate those joyful moments in your life and use them as an opportunity to remind yourself how grateful you are to have them.

Brené writes:

“If we’re not practising gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times.”

Get Deliberate

I am reassured by Brené’s research, which shows that:

“…neither joy nor happiness is constant; no one feels happy all of the time or joyful all of the time.”

There are days where we are all reminded of our humanity and we can’t seem to find happiness or joy. What do we do on those days? We go back to square one and practice gratitude.

As Brené says, it is time to get deliberate about practising gratitude. We must appreciate the ordinary moments of life:

“I think I learned the most about the value of ordinary from interviewing men and women who have experienced tremendous loss such as the loss of a child, violence, genocide, and trauma. The memories that they held most sacred were the ordinary, everyday moments. It was clear that their most precious memories were forged from a collection of ordinary moments, and their hope for others is that they would stop long enough to be grateful for those moments and the joy they bring.“

Author and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson says:

“Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”

The goal is to make joy a state of mind that you put yourself into on purpose. Invite gratitude into your life and joy will follow.

Next Steps:

Try these examples of practising gratitude from the people Brené interviewed:

  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Try daily gratitude meditations or prayers
  • Create gratitude art
  • Stop during stressful, busy days to actually say these words out loud: “I am grateful for …”