How Do You Cultivate Joy?

It’s coming on fall now as we approach the end of August in Ohio. Even if it’s humid and 90, there’s a hint of that shift – darker evenings, school beginning, Friday football games and county fairs in full swing. The morning light is more angled, shadows longer, world tilted a little more than it was just a month ago.

This can only mean soon there will be ads for pumpkin-flavored everything.

Nearly every conversation you have in the Midwest about fall is immediately followed by mention of the foreboding winter. The worst thing about fall, we say, is that it means winter is coming next.

This is common. Can you believe it’s already [ fill in the blank ]? Soon it will be [ fill in the blank ]. And then before you know it, it will be [ fill in the blank ]. We nod mournfully at the passing of all this time, how short it’s here, how swiftly it goes.

All day long we log moments being robbed of joy. There’s a sliver of fear embedded in our interactions. What we have right now might be stolen from us – our freedom, our security, our power, our children, our loved ones, by death, by illness, by accident, by government, by terrorist, by the simple passing of time – and with that sliver of fear we limp and wince through our days, afraid of every potential offense, afraid of injury or loss, afraid of missing a moment, afraid, afraid, afraid.

Lately I’ve been thinking about joy. How do you cultivate that cup-runneth-over phenomenon, that heart swelling out of your chest, tear-streaked cheeks laugh, that satisfying end-of-day sigh as the sun sets and the breeze shifts and the trees do that rustling thing they’re always doing but somehow goes unnoticed in the rush of every other moment, how do you get that, how do you make that happen, how do you sustain joy? Can it be done while nursing that sliver of fear?

Joy follows the first fruit of the Spirit: first love, then joy (then peace, then patience…). The ordering of such things to me seems to matter. When we love we are grateful and gratitude blossoms joy. When we love we are fully in a moment, our spirits right here, our minds engaged and centered, our hearts open and vulnerable and unafraid.

Being a fruit of the Spirit, I think it’s difficult to conjure joy on our own – it’s more of a byproduct of love. The Scriptures say we love because He first loved us, so even the first fruit of the Spirit – love – is not something that comes naturally to us. Love and joy seem parsed out in greater heaping spoonfuls the more we’re able to open to them.

The handle to the vise that pries open our hearts to love and joy is gratitude. It is the action we have the power to take and the habit we are able to develop – give thanks in all circumstances, give thanks to the Lord for he is good, give thanks to the Lord for his love endures forever, enter his gates with thanksgiving, I thank my God for all of you, I always thank my God for you, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, I thank my God every time I remember you, we always thank God – the father of our Lord Jesus Christ – when we pray for you, we always thank God for all of you.

And more. Thankfulness turns an “I’m afraid of this moment slipping away” into “I’m grateful this moment is happening.” It pops the bubble of fear and out of that bubble bursts forth joy. When things are out of our control (and so much of the direction of this world is out of our hands), can we open our fists and stop clinging with fear to the “what ifs…” and hold instead in our open palms this gratitude for what is right now here in front of us?

We cultivate joy through gratitude, through paying attention, through forcing back foreboding, through living out this particular breath and gasp and sigh. There are 15,000 fans together celebrating a homerun just now, just now a squirrel stood on its hind legs to munch on a nut and clean its front paws, just now the wind blew lightly and the tree leaned with the breeze, just now my boys laughed together from the other room, uproarious and raucously and unashamed, just now, just now, just now.

There is beauty and truth and order here, and when I stop to see the world around me I find gratitude welling forth joy. Thank you for the way the light has changed the color of this room. Thank you for the cicada song, the ripple of wind in my red umbrella. Thank you for the slow growing canvas of color on the early dawn sky, thank you, thank you, thank you.

The habit of gratitude takes practice, and it begins by just noticing things, by slowing down enough throughout the day to observe the world as it is happening around you. When we draw open our awareness, we provide another opening for reflection and vulnerability to recognize the thing in front of us for its beauty, its truth, its existence, and in that recognition we find connection, and in that connection we feel gratitude, and from that gratitude springs joy.

If the pace and chaos of the day sweeps away any opportunities to pause and reflect then find an evening routine, a morning routine, a walk or a journal or a chair and look around at the active and evolving world. Just sit for a bit, and find one thing to be grateful. One thing. Why are you grateful for that one thing? It is enough that it is.

And tomorrow, choose two. And then three. Then more, until your day your heart your mind fills with the habitual refrain, “I’m grateful, I’m grateful, I’m grateful.” This is how we fend off the terror. This is how we walk with courage and light and hope into the world.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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