Why Joy is a Superpower and How to Nurture Daily Joy – Even in Tough Times

Monday April 12, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, people worldwide are grappling with isolation, uncertainty, fear, and grief – for a lost way of life, and for relatives and friends. In these tough times, just like the retinoblastoma journey, nurturing joy is vital to help mind and body release tension and nourish hope. Morgan Livingstone CCLS explains why joy is a superpower, and how we can nurture it in ourselves and others.

Small image of Fred Rogers, above his words: “If you like to make things out of wood, or sew, or dance, or style people's hair, or dream up stories and act them out, or play the trumpet, or jump rope, or whatever you really love to do, and you love that in front of your children, that's going to be a far more important gift than anything you could ever give them wrapped up in a box with ribbons.”

*** Disclaimer ***

A lot of personal, as well as professional, advice is included in this special blog post. I try to find joy daily, for me, for my family, my patients and their families, and even for strangers. There is a LOT of science behind how joy benefits all of us.

Nothing in this blog is intended to make you feel like this is too much work, or create any additional stress for you on the road to finding joy each day. I just include a lot of great tips and child life tricks, some personal challenges, and hopefully some joy to make you smile.

J is for JOY

Why joy? Why now (with all that is going on in the world)? Well, here’s my reasoning.

Instead of focusing on what we don’t want right now; COVID-19, isolation, pandemic news, more lockdowns, more stress, more upset, more fear…, I felt we should shift our focus to what we DO want.

What do we want and need so much right now?

Relief from all of this awfulness. EnJOYment. Joy.

April is Stress Reduction month, and part of the brainstorming about that included joy.

If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that one way to avoid a state of complete meltdown is to find ways to take care of ourselves and discover joy in the little things. Many of us tried new methods to feel good when we were feeling low, scared, lonely and anxious.

Whether it was elaborate – you chose to become an expert baker, redecorate your home, or take on a new workout regime in your garage, or something simpler, like lacing up your shoes and going for a daily walk, re-watching a favorite TV show, or taking the time to call a friend each day.

What these activities all have in common is JOY. A small amount of joy each day can go a long way during a global pandemic, or any personal crisis. These new and old discoveries all lead us to a more joyful life. Joy helps reduce stress and increases feelings of physical wellness.

A young patient in Kenya has fun finger print painting with chocolate pudding.

A young patient in Kenya has fun finger print painting with chocolate pudding.

Starting Your Day with Joy: YAY LIFE!!!!

Waking up with a positive intention is a good way to start your day. With a little practice and perspective, you can have an intentional day that helps you find joy, even when it’s lashing rain outside!

Try having an “intentional day” – check this out.

Scenario: Imagine you are lying in bed, slowly waking up to the sound of rain falling on your window. You stretch and gaze out of the window at the rain and say “UGH, it’s raining. OH look at this rain, the clouds, the greyness. This is going to be a terrible day.” There’s a good chance you will have a bad day, because you intended it.

Now imagine this scenario: You are lying in bed, slowly waking up to the sound of rain falling on your window. You stretch and gaze out of the window at the rain and say, “Wow, that’s a lot of rain. The flowers, the trees and the grass are going to get a good watering today!” In this scenario, you are likely to have a better day, smiling with the knowledge that this rain is helping the plants around you grow, survive and thrive.

Just by waking up with the intention to view the heavy rainfall as a benefit to something, those lucky plants, you intended to hold on to something positive, despite the grey day filled with rain. Now this “intention” isn’t always easy, and often takes practice. Try to practice an intentional day just like you would practice learning a new instrument, or tackling a new recipe. It will take time, but the more you “intend” to turn a potential negative day around right from the start, the easier it gets.

Try this to get you started

Find those little things to get your day started right, and something to look forward to. It might be a yummy breakfast, or listening to your favorite song while you get dressed. It might be using a specific soap or body scrub that smells so good you can’t help but smile as you wash.

This doesn’t need to be something expensive or special. Finding something you love that helps you start your day off right shouldn’t stress you out. Consider it a new kind of bucket list.

What everyday item/song/food brings me joy…..? Try it out!

The Importance of Play as a Part of Joy

Yes, even adults need to play!

No matter where a child is in the world, and what they are experiencing – war, sickness, pain or homelessness, boredom and isolation – they all need love and fun, nutrition, play, curiosity and wonder.

As a certified child life specialist, most of what I do that supports children’s coping and helps them be and feel successful during the course of their medical experience is delivered through different types of play.  Here are the many different types of play typically offered by a child life specialist to children and youth:

  • 45% is developmentally appropriate play (that’s just play for play’s sake)
  • 19% is medical play
  • 12% is procedural support
  • 11% is therapeutic activities
  • 10% is health education (or diagnosis specific education)
  • 2% is coping and coaching

How cool is that! The most important and most frequent type of play provided is JUST PLAY. Play offers fun, silliness, adventure and joy, as well as stress relief, and helps kids with processing what’s happening in their lives. Yep, it’s true.

Play is essential to children’s coping, especially during times of high stress such as serious illness or this pandemic. Driving 100 little cars around the floor for hours, and all that unicorn play, has great value and meaning for kids. Even when there are no toys to play with, children will find a way to play.

A young boy wearing patterned green underwear stands among the contents of a garbage dump, reaches his left hand above his head. In his hand is a short piece of string hanging down with a ripped piece of plastic tied to the end.

A homeless young boy I met in Cange, Haiti, approximately 3 years old. He’s made his own kite to play with using garbage from the dump where he lives.

So have fun!  Find ways to make time for play WITH children, and find time to play on your own. Playing with the children in your life, whether they are your own kids, family members, or neighbors, can be enjoyed in person or even virtually now.

On your own, just taking time for a simple word game on your phone provides little bits of joy each day as you challenge yourself to solve a word problem. This type of play is spontaneous, and usually requires little planning and preparation. Just get ready to have some fun. There are so many ways to increase joy with carefree playfulness.

A black father smiles broadly as he and his happy son play toy cars together.

Joyful carefree play has huge value for children and adults alike.

Promoting Joy in Virtual Communication and Play

Here are some virtual ways to promote joy and play with children fromimage of the Virtual Scavenger Hunt PDF, showing a rainbow title and two activities. The first is a simple list of items to find. The second is a set of nine coloured boxes, each describing a single item to find and share with others playing the game. afar.

  • Question games such as “would you rather”
  • Joke of the day
  • Word riddles and games – guess the animal (one player gives animal related clues, while the other tries to guess the animal)
  • Having a virtual dance party over zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook messenger video or facetime – put on some good music and let it rip!

Here is a short list of the virtual scavenger hunt items to find around the house.

Check out more ideas in this video – they can be easily adapted for children and adults of different ages and abilities.

Creating an Individual or Family Joy List

What tasks, activities and adventures would you like to do that bring you joy?

Sometimes it can help during stressful times like illness or a pandemic to plan activities based on the health and safety procedures you are living with. This will give you time to think about what you need and want to try, and organize them into groups. It may be necessary to consider the joy-giving activities that can be completed within your home, and a different set of experiences to enjoy outside of your home when it is appropriate and safe.

Try this helpful template to get yourself thinking about what adventures you would like to have, as BIG or as small as you want. With this activity, you are only limited by your lack of imagination, or possibly isolation protocols.

Header of the front page from the Big Life Journal activity PDF “Our Family's Bucket List”.

Learning to Play and Find Joy as an Adult

What inspires you? What resonates with you?

Very early on in my career as a child life specialist, I had the pleasure (and privilege) of learning from and working with Dr. Patch Adams (yes, the doctor who is also a clown). It had an immeasurable impact on my work as a child life specialist, and the children, families, colleagues and students who have worked with me know this shows in how I play, engage and interact with everyone I meet.

It takes a lot of bravery and energy to be silly, playful and fun during intimate and serious interactions in a child’s medical experiences. I know how difficult it can be to apply joy every day, and it’s ok (and quite normal) to have a bad day.  But I promise you, if you want to do this, the hard work is well worth it.

Alt Text: Morgan is on the left with a white fluffy sweater and feathered butterfly wings. Patch Adams is on the right, wearing glasses and a grey dress shirt with colourful orange, yellow and blue shapes on it.

Morgan and Patch Adams, when they first met in 2002.

Listen to this helpful and inspirational podcast interview with Dr. Patch Adams. He discusses his experiences over many decades in starting each day with joy, infusing healthcare with care and joy, and how children find joy in play every day, no matter what they are going through!  Highlights include:

  • Patch’s thoughts on how “health” can be brought back to healthcare.
  • What kids around the world are looking for from adults.
  • How as an adult you can get yourself to a place where play with your own kids and children around you is easy and natural.
  • How to model a “life of joy” so that your children can live joyfully as well.
  • How Patch uses gratitude and living with intention to never have a bad day.
  • Why it might be challenging for men in particular to play with kids, and how to remedy that.
  • Patch’s recommendations to his own son regarding fatherhood, now that Patch is a grandfather.

Patch’s Advice on raising happy kids:

  1. The more loving and radiant you are as parents, in partnership, the more you are a good example for your kids.
  2. Get involved in children’s learning – at school, at home, and in your community.
  3. Surround your life with explorations in nature, the arts, and life beyond your home.

There’s Power in a Smile

When happiness is elusive, impossible or just not happening today…

Alt-text: A close up head shot of a toddler.

A selfie photo of Finn Clancy (Morgan’s son) at age 18 months, having an upset mini meltdown while in his car seat.

If you are still struggling to find joy on days when you’re just bummed out or burnt out, the act of putting a smile on your face will still cheer you up. Science even backs this up! A study out of the University of Kansas revealed that just by putting a smile on your face can slow your heart rate during a stressful period, and helps you chill out.

But, if you can’t bear to smile, it’s important to acknowledge that sadness and the occasional bad mood are normal and natural too. No one can be happy all the time. This may be the happiest news of all.

Here are some calming strategies for Adults to reduce stress – which can help lead to greater joy!

Image of the first page from the Big Life Journal PDF “Calming Strategies for Adults”, showing the title in blue, purple and green. 24 titles icons set out in six rows of four show different ways to find calm. The methods suggested are: do deep breathing, name my feeling, listen to music, listen to nature sounds, hold my pet, call a friend, lay down with eyes closed, look at photos, tap my fingers, doodle, knit or crochet, journal, apply calming oils, make a cup of tea, give someone a hug, say an affirmation, take a brisk walk, read a poem, take a warm bath, watch an uplifting video, visualize my favourite place, dance to my favourite song, hold an ice cube, do a few yoga poses,

The Science of Happiness

The Science of Happiness TIME magazine cover, featuring the title and many different smiley emoji faces. Are you interested in learning more about the science behind happiness?

The Science of Happiness TIME magazine is available as an audio book and eBook, You can also check out a free sample.

The Happiness Lab podcast is hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Through scientific research and human story, she explores how we can find more happiness and joy in our daily lives.

A Final Word

A LOT goes into planning and preparing these blogs, year-round. And a HUGE thanks needs to go to Abby White, who ensures that all this magic happens. In our discussions after this particularly awful past year, filled with loss and isolation, Abby mentioned that she wanted this blog to include Joy. In the words of our upcoming Alphabet of Hope entry for the letter J:

“Don’t let your heart’s nourishment be an accident. Don’t wait for the perfect time “after…” to treat yourself or share special activities. Create sparks of light in these messy moments right now, Rest, breathe, notice one another. Cuddle close, savour the small daily gifts. Pay attention to what you experience, and how you feel. Be enriched by joy.”

Alt Text: A photo of Abby White and Morgan Livingstone surrounded by lush green forest. Abby is on the left, wearing a cream-coloured knit jumper, and black sunglasses, and is holding hiking poles. Morgan is on the right, wearing a navy-blue fleece jacket, white sunglasses on top of her head.

Abby White (left) and Morgan Livingstone find joy on a morning hike in the lush green forests of Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, during a welcome break at The Ark. Brief relaxation creating balance before another big meeting, during a month of intensive work.

About the Author

Morgan and Doc McStuffinsMorgan Livingstone is a Certified Child Life Specialist and Certified Infant Massage Instructor/Trainer. She is passionate about improved child life and psychosocial supports for children and families affected by retinoblastoma.

As the Child Life Officer of World Eye Cancer Hope, Morgan contributes to the website’s Child Life sections, and speaks globally about child life supports for children with retinoblastoma. Morgan provided enriched multi-day child life programming for children of all ages at both One Rb World in Washington, D.C. in October 2017 and the Canadian Retinoblastoma Research Advisory Board meeting in December 2017.

Morgan also writes and creates resources for children and adults, and participates in child life research studies. She won the inaugural Innovation Grant at Operation Smile for developing an APP that uses Virtual Reality to prepare children receiving cleft lip and palate surgery for their operation.

Download Morgan’s helpful parent manual for supporting children’s worries using Worry Eaters.

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