Finding Joy Amongst Life’s Stresses

Joy is one tool to use in the fight against too much, unrelenting stress.


Did any of you see this article by Gillian Livingston in the Globe and Mail recently about the study on stress: Survey Says: We’re Stressed (and not loving it)? So many of us are stressed way beyond our comfort zone. Some stress is good, but too much and unrelenting stress is bad, in a myriad of ways.

In this post, I want to look at joy as one tool to use in the fight against too much, unrelenting stress. First, let’s circle back and pick up on something I was writing about in December, 2013 when I blogged about Give and Take by Adam Grant :

I have talked to a lot of women about giving to themselves, women who have accomplished so much and are, by their own admission, exhausted.  They are yearning for more joy and positive energy in their lives. These are some of the words I have heard them use to describe giving to themselves: it’s a “luxury”, an “indulgence”…it’s “selfish”.   I will boldly say: believing that giving to ourselves is a luxury, an indulgence, and selfish is driving our exhaustion and limiting our joy.     We can’t feel much joy when we are exhausted from giving so much to others without considering ourselves in the equation.

So in this post, let’s agree to consider you in the equation.   In my coaching work and indeed in my own personal life, I am a proponent of the small but powerful shifts and steps we can take to create significant change in our lives. Rest assured things can change and so can you, if you want. I have seen it happen for my clients and for myself.   Here, I am aiming to inspire you to take some small steps toward jolts of joy in your day, despite the xyz negative things that are going on around you, both close by and in the larger world. I invite you experiment with really opening your eyes to those opportunities for moments of joy that are around you every day.

Another thing I stand for in my coaching work is “making room for you”. What I mean by that is making room for the whole you, mind, body and spirit all connected together, in both personal and professional realms.   Take “body” for a minute. Joy is a positive emotion, which means it is embodied. It is something you feel in your body. What I am suggesting in this post is that you be emotionally intelligent with joy.   Being emotionally intelligent means “being smart with your emotions” – in other words, to bring your mind and body together. (This definition is from Six Seconds.) In the case of joy, cultivate it, notice it, savour it and choose to use it to feed you, to nourish you and give you energy so that you can continue to give to everyone else.

We, professional women, are really excellent at critical thinking and often that can mean that we dwell on negativity without leaving room for some positivity.   Yes, we need negativity, and some pessimism too, and indeed I have a book by my bedside that I have started reading and am finding helpful called The Upside of Your Dark Side by Robert Biswas-Diener and Tim Kashdan. And we also need some positivity, joy being one example of positivity.  This may not always come so naturally. It is certainly not what we have been trained for as critical thinkers.   Joy will give you some energy and also greater ability to deal with stress, if you let it.  You may need to practice and experiment (remember the growth mindset?) and it will be worth it.

Here’s a description of joy from Barbara Frederickson:

Joy feels bright and light. Colors seem more vivid. There’s a spring in your step.   And your face lights up with a smile and an inner glow. You feel like taking it all in.   You feel playful – and you want to jump in and get involved.

p. 41 of Positivity

An inner glow…feeling playful…those sound good to me! I think we all need more of this!

When was the last time you felt that way? Maybe it wasn’t so long ago, and that is great. And did you savour it when it happened or did you quickly move on to the next thing?

Being joyful here and there does not diminish your ability to deal with stress and serious matters. Instead, joy will help you be resilient and better able to cope with the negative things in life – here’s a another quote I love and use often, from Barbara Fredrickson in another book:

 …I dare say that no human experience is purely 100 percent good. Life experiences are instead virtually always some rich amalgam of good and bad. Think of it as a vibrant tapestry, in which the gilded threads of love and good fortune are interwoven among the darker threads of pain, sorrow and loss.

Equally true, no human experience is purely 100 percent bad, nor need it be. Even the heaviest of human experiences – sudden grief or joblessness, nature or human-orchestrated disasters and other brushes with mortality – can be lightened appreciably when you recollect some simple truths such as “this too shall pass” or “I’m not in this alone.” Indeed such braiding of adversity with hope and love, of destructive with more reassuring emotions, is the secret to resilience.   Resilient people are the ones who bend without breaking and who eventually bounce back form even the most difficult life challenges. Instinctually, they can see some form of light in the darkness they face. In study after study, my collaborators and I find that it is precisely this infusion of positive emotions into negative emotional terrain that drives resilient people to bounce back.

Perhaps you come by this sort of resilience naturally. For whatever reasons, you may have little trouble finding the value in difficult experiences, even if it’s only to discover the depths of your own inner fortitude or your social support.   But maybe your own resilience doesn’t come to you naturally. Maybe you flounder in the wake of upsets and struggle to regain your footing.   Rest assured, people can and do become more resilient in time. All it takes is practice. With repeated practice, you can build new emotional habits that fuel a newfound and well-earned resilience. You too, can bounce back from the many adversities you endure.   And when you do, you’ll also discover a renewed capacity to offer positivity resonance to others, helping others to heal, grown and bounce back as well.   The place to start is with your own suffering.

p. 142 Love 2.0 by Barbara Fredrickson

So I hope with these ideas, you feel you can give yourself permission to feel and savour some joy, let it be infused into your life, and know that this well be an energizing experience for you to have that will help you be more resilient in the face of that unrelenting stress. And you now also know it is something that you can practice and get better at over time.

Here are a few ideas, some small steps, to inspire you into action, to practice and experiment:

  • Do something you really enjoy, even just for a few minutes. According to, “Enjoy” means “to experience with joy; take pleasure in”. What gives you that “joie de vivre”?
  • Do you have any children In your life – yours or someone else’s? Really opening your eyes and being present and even playful with a child for a few minutes will likely help you find some joy.   Here’s a personal anecdote: you may know I have three kids and my youngest has special needs. Being a good enough Mum to him has been a huge challenge for me (read stress and fear here!!! as well as profound love and joy) and I am learning that one way to step up to that is to be playful with him, and then ride and savour the joy that comes from his open and enthusiastic response to my playfulness. Picture this, my latest attempt:  he is flying a plane around the living room and not wanting to get dressed before school. I say “D come and get dressed…come and land your plane here at the island airport [aka the glass coffee table]!  Let’s play the Florida game…what animal do we sometimes see swimming around in the ocean and starts with the letter D?“  I have been practicing and I am getting better at this – less of the urgency of the “bus is coming!” and more playfulness. …He landed the plane, played the game with lots of squiggles of delight and finally got dressed.  And we had fun with it.  There was joy to savour.
  • Do you have any dogs in your life – again yours or someone else’s? My dog Raska and her friends are endless sources of amusement – especially when they greet each other with such joy and abandon. Each morning it’s like they haven’t seen each other in years!  Their joy is infectious. When I am feeling silly I mimic them as I greet their owners, my friends in the neighbourhood.  So, find a dog and play with her!
  • Do you have a phone with playlist capability? I suspect the answer is “yes”. So you can have music with you all the time. Why not just have a spontaneous dance in your office, in your bathroom, in the kitchen with your family, or alone.   Don’t underestimate the joy-inducing effects of a few hip wiggles!  If this sounds possible for you, I Invite you to check out this blog post and song and stay tuned for another joy – inspiring song to add to your playlist in my next blog post.
  • Take a walk outside and be open to the glory of nature – yes even in a Canadian winter! If you are so inclined take a photograph of something that gives you joy.
  • Channel the 13 yr old girl in you, find a trampoline and jump for joy as my daughter and her friend are doing in the photo.

Finally, if you find that you are experiencing “foreboding joy” as Brené Brown puts it – where you are starting to feel joy seep in to you but quickly you feel fear that your joy will somehow cause bad things to happen, see this post about gratitude. Brené Brown has found in her research that gratitude is the antidote to foreboding joy.

For more ideas for finding time and the inclination for  playfulness and joy as well as work and love, read  Overwhelmed: Work Love and Play When No One Has The Time by Brigid Schulte or some highlights from the book in this blog post.  I am looking forward to hearing Brigid Schulte speak at an ICF (International Coach Federation) GTA conference this month.   I will report back with any further inspirations for you.

Ok, I think this is enough to get started….what do you think?





Author: Milisa Burns

Milisa Burns is a certified professional coach, former lawyer and married mother of three, with her own website:

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