John Sperling has pledged 3 billion dollars – that’s billion with a B – for research to help us live longer (and to help our kids live even longer still). When that research begins to pay greater dividends than it’s already paying, it will be a good thing if much of that longer life might be spent joyfully. Neuroscience and developmental psychology have some ideas about how that might actually be accomplished.
Joy, it turns out, shows up much like stress in the brain. It’s a neuro-event that needs to be met and modulated, not ignored or dismissed by parents or teachers who don’t truly understand its value and long-term benefits. Unfortunately many of us were born to parents who came through the Great Depression or who suffered through one or more of the major wars that have taken place since then. Wars and Great Depressions are not optimal environments for joy to fully flourish in. But parents can still have a significant impact on our capacity to experience joy even the midst of trying life events. In her wonderful, wide-ranging account on the power that parents possess to affect children’s unfolding for good or bad, English developmental psychologist, Margot Sunderland identifies significant cross-cultural research that illustrates what has to happen in our brains and bodies in order to produce joy:
In the brain there is a foundational genetic system for joy, but how it unfolds depends upon the interaction of those genes with social experiences. By and large, it is not possible to access the brain’s “joy juice” naturally without emotional connection with others. It is possible to experience pleasure, but not real joy. Joy is also a bodily state. To feel heights of joy, as opposed to just pleasure, we have to be moved from the very depths of us. This means that, alongside the activation of the brain’s joy juice, the body’s arousal system has activated high levels of adrenaline, which surges around the body. We can feel this adrenaline boost as our heart rate goes up, we breathe faster, and our appetite is suppressed. Dopamine and opiods in combination have to be activated at optimum levels in the brain if we are to feel joy. The repeated activation of these brain chemicals in childhood can enable your child to access many other wonderful human gifts – namely, to be spontaneous, to have the drive and hope to follow a dream, and to feel awe, wonder, and sheer delight in response to the beautiful and amazing things in the world. (pgs. 91-92)
So joy is experienced in the brain and the body with high arousal and fully activated stress chemicals. As such, the joy circuitry in children must be channeled and modulated by the parents so that it is built up gradually over time until the children themselves can perform the necessary channeling and modulation on their own. Otherwise, joy would possibly end up being just one more overwhelming, unmanageable stressor possibly resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Social neuroscientist, Allan Schore, “the Einstein of Attachment Research” at the UCLA Medical School, has intimately detailed how that channeling and modulation is most likely accomplished. Schore contends that the right brain and the limbic structures store internal working models of our early important dyad relationships. This is the area where fast-acting, social-emotional information (like joy) is processed. And it is the positive emotions like joy and excitement that powerfully impact physical and mental health over the whole lifespan. So joy is unquestionably worth cultivating in our lives.
But what if we have not been fortunate enough to develop the neural circuitry to easily embrace and regulate joy in ourselves – think Ebenezer Scrooge here, or an American politician of your own choosing. Turns out it’s rarely too late to pursue a joy-filled adulthood. Schore and other interpersonal neurobiologists frequently contend that “it takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain.” As adults, we can begin searching for joyful people to begin spending time with. This won’t be easy and won’t feel comfortable, possibly for quite a while – remember, we haven’t yet grown the requisite neural circuitry to easily process and modulate joy. But with time and patience and practice and practice and practice, and a little neurogenesis, gradually the days of our lives may begin to actually feel like joyeuses fêtes.