Joy: A Necessity for Life
Playing with a baby is one of the most joy-filled experiences! The back-and-forth laughter and smiles continue as we make silly noises or tickle our baby’s tummy. When we engage in this type of play, everyone involved experiences an elated feeling of joy. Sometimes playtime turns into a time of consoling our crying baby without a moment’s notice! While an adult can stay in this state of elation for an extended period of time, the joy center of the baby’s brain (a section of the front of the brain that governs one’s state-of-mind) is underdeveloped and can only handle small amounts before experiencing overwhelm.
Although babies have a small and underdeveloped joy center, the human brain’s joy center has the ability to continue to grow through life (2). As this area continues to grow, we gain the ability to handle greater levels of joy and distress before needing to rest and recover (2). Joy is a state of elation we experience when someone is glad to be with us (2). Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have the ability to choose joy. However, we do have the ability to strategically grow our ability to experience joy. Practicing gratitude is a great way to position ourselves to increase joy. That said, connections with others (who are glad to be with us) are the primary ways we experience and grow our joy capacity.
As we interact with others, our brains are constantly growing and changing; this is called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity happens because we are constantly taking in new information and experiences and incorporating them into our understanding of the world. Our brain is also regularly and repeatedly seeking patterns and connections in the information it receives. A leading expert in this field, Dr. Allan Schore, has helped us to understand that the brain develops as a self-organizing system that occurs in the context of another brain, not in isolation (1). This means that the brains of those we are around help our brain to develop its experience of the world, as well as how it develops and self-organizes.
Let’s return to the example of the baby. The brain of an infant is dependent on the brain of a caregiver to develop. As a caregiver nurtures and engages in play with an infant, the brain of the baby begins to feel emotions that activate neural circuits that are more easily activated in the future (1). Think about this like building a new road; the more work that is done on it, the easier it becomes to travel down. As a caregiver and infant engage in face-to-face interactions, the emotionally expressive face of the caregiver causes the developing child’s brain to be altered to mimic the brain of the adult (1). As a result of positive, joyful interactions, the baby’s brain experiences elation or joy, which further results in the brain’s reward center releasing opioids, also known as hormones like dopamine and oxytocin (1). As a caregiver’s actions cause the infant’s brain to experience joy, the amplified joy in the child’s brain mirrors back to the adult, further increasing the joy that the adult brain experiences.
From the moment we are born, joy shapes the chemistry, structure, and growth of our brain (2). It sets up how the brain experiences relationships, emotions, pain, and pleasure, as well as establishing a healthy and stable identity throughout our lifetime (2). Most importantly, the experience of joy is a necessary part of secure attachment. An infant attaches securely to a caregiver when he/she experiences joy, which leads to the brain’s reward center releasing oxytocin, the attachment hormone (1). This early experience of joy is essential for setting up healthy relationships, emotions, and identity. Without joy, the developing brain cannot self-organize in a healthy way. Therefore, it is essential that every brain experiences joy in order to develop properly.
There is much evidence for the case that joy is one of the most necessary relational experiences a person needs to experience, beginning at birth and continuing through life. When resulting emotions and connection are missing, it sets a person up for a host of problems throughout life. The second blog in this series will focus on what happens when a person lives in a state of low joy. The final blog will conclude by highlighting the benefits of living with true joy.
- Schore, A. N. (2016). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Routledge.
2. Wilder, E. J., Khouri, E. M., Coursey, C. M., & Sutton, S. D. (2021). Joy starts here: The transformation zone. Joy Starts Here.