By: Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, March 2, 2006.
Updated: July 31, 2009.
Reviewed by: Andrew Larcombe R.P.N., M.A.
Ever catch a sunset that almost took your breath away?
Joy is the emotion that arises when you “drink in” such a scene. Joy is the feeling of relaxed openness to that moment of beauty, a bodily sense of being fully alive.
How does our capacity to respond joyfully to moments of beauty, intimacy or thankfulness develop?
If you’ve ever watched a father cooing to his baby and you’ve noticed the baby responding with a wide open smile, you are witnessing the co-creation of a mutually attuned state of joyfulness. When this act is repeated many times the infant brain grows and organizes itself to develop the individual’s capacity to experience joy throughout her or his lifetime.
As with all other emotions, the capacity for joy is acquired in the early relationship between parent and child. In infancy the primary caregiver’s nervous system acts as a template for the infant’s nervous system to develop.
When an infant is born her undeveloped nervous system has the capacity for basically two states: 'on', or hyperarousal (excitement) and 'off', or dorsal vagal. In the first 2-3 years, when 90% of the nervous system develops, the neuropathways that make joyous states possible are imprinted. That is, joy states are actually learned.
This happens through interactions between the infant and its primary caretakers. The parent's nervous system provides a template for the developing nervous system of the infant to follow in its development.
Most of an infant's brain is developed after birth!
Because of the “use-dependent” nature of brain development, the child who receives fewer opportunities for positive emotional attunement with a primary caregiver can expect to develop less capacity for joyfulness. For example, if the mother is anxious or depressed her lessened facility for attunement may result in the child’s diminished capacity for joy later in life.
Joy and Anxiety / Depression
You can imagine now why it's difficult for an infant of a depressed mother to develop the capacity for joy. It also highlights the importance of depression treatment for mothers suffering from postpartum depression.
You can also appreciate that anxiety-prone parents will play a pivotal role in the development of anxiety symptoms in their children.
The good news is that although anxiety is an implicitly-learned response, it can be overridden or unlearned, even in adulthood. Because the brain retains its plasticity throughout the lifespan the individual can learn to replace ingrained depression or anxiety responses with a richer emotional life that includes the enjoyment of sunsets. Of course, we believe that counseling is the most effective way to accomplish this!
What many people--and therapists--fail to appreciate is that the reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms do not automatically bring on joy. Joy pathways are a strong defense against anxiety and depression but the abscense of either does not necessarily mean joyfulness. In essence, symptom reduction without the pathways for joy brings the nervous system to neutral.
And as I mentioned, the very exciting news is that these pathways can be developed!
Especially for Parents
If you suffer from anxiety or depression symptoms, you may be able to reduce the impact that your state has on your child using infant massage. Results indicate that infant massage can improve infant's sleep, lower fussiness and restlessness and create richer mother and infant play interactions. Read more below (you will be taken offsite):
What you need to understand.
Joy is often confused with excitement. But it differs in a fundamental way. Joy is activated by the parasympathetic nervous system. In contrast, activation of the sympathetic nervous system is experienced as excitement.
The distinction is important because while we can, and often do, place ourselves in situations that are exciting (horror films, bungee jumping, getting married.), it's not possible to experience joy unless the right neuropathways have been laid down in the nervous system.
One friend of mine described the difference this way. Excitement often comes from an external event or circumstance (like the excitement you feel playing a competitive game of volleyball).
Joy, on the other hand, might best be described as coming from an internal source. That is, you don't necessarily need anything in your environment for you to feel joyful. You just are!
Dance as though no one is watching you,
Love as though you have never been hurt before,
Sing as though no one can hear you,
Live as though heaven is on earth.
Especially for Therapists
The new paradigm of psychotherapy proposes that the nervous system of the therapist can act as template for the client, in much the same way that the parent-infant dyad operates.
You can thus appreciate the importance that the emotional health of the therapist (and especially the presence or absence of anxiety or depression) plays in the client's treatment.
It also implies that therapists can take a client only as far as they themselves have gone.
My Personal Musings
It seems that in order to produce happy clients we need happy therapists. We need psychotherapists who are committed to personal growth, who realize that their own development has a direct impact on the progress of their clients.
The Future of Psychotherapy - video
"Affect regulation is not just the reduction of affective intensity, the dampening of negative emotion. It also involves an amplification, an intensification of positive emotion, a condition necessary for more complex self-organization. Schore, 2003 p.78.
Schore, Allan (2003). Affect Regulation and Disorders of the Self. "Parent-Infant Communications and the Neurobiology of Emotional Development." New York: W.W. Norton & Company pp.71-86.
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I am so much more...
I have been on your site before, was diagnosed with conversion disorder and it took me almost two years to get my brain around the impact my childhood and other stress brought me to where i am today, only because of what i allowed.
I now know that i am so much more. It took me almost 18 months to put my trust in a fantastic therapist - i admire her for sticking it out with me and always being there for me as she allowed me to email her (my speech get very slur when i talk about my emotions) so sessions tend to go a bit slow.
I find your site so helpful and hope to be able to purchase your course material soon. Thank you so much for this fantastic site!
Deirdre, Somerset-west, South Africa
Thanks for sharing Deidre. Good to hear your work is paying off.
Bonnie (Alberta, Canada)
Thank you very well said!
I accidentaly came on this site and am happy I did. All this stuff hits home, especially the Mother and Child interaction in the first few years.
I have been in therapy on and off for 30 years and am just starting to really get it. I think my new medicine is working.
Thanks for the info.
Sharon, Florida USA
Yeah, I'm with you on that one Sharon. The mother/child interactions are key.
Is there hope for joy?
Hi your site is amAzing enlightening and inspiring. Thank you!
I broke up with my fiancee a year and a half ago because he had an emotional hijacking and walked out on me for a few weeks. I got very low and depressed and began cbt treatment for myself as I knew my weaknesses had contributed to our demise. He independently sought counselling and was helped to an extent, but I feel that his main problem is experiencing joy and gratitude . He kind of agrees.
But what would you advise for him to develop his sense of joy more. he is getting better but I am a bit tired of acting like his shrink and wondered what you suggest. he says he is the happiest he's ever been in his life with me, but he finds it hard to say things like that or even to give me compliments. He says he assumes we will marry and have children yet rarely talks about these things with joy. So I am feeling a little stagnant.
He doesn't bottle up his negative feelings so much any more so hasnt had any more emotional storming outs...as we talk about things before they build up.I feel we are half way there.His mother is a very cold, emotional person and when we first met he said he had no feelings for her.over the years I have encouraged more contact as I felt it would be good for him.but I cannot connect with her and feel no warmth from her.
He is very physically close and intimate with me and we cuddle a lot and hold hands a lot .I just feel he would be happier and more in the moment to be able to feel joy and verbalise it to me.
is there any hope for him to do that? Can you recommend any practical book or course? thank you so much!
Mary, Northhampton, UK
Joy, later in life?
How can we learn 'joy' later in Life? My mother was in an appalling marriage/ disconnected from us children and severely depressed for many years. All 3 of us have paid ther price in disasterous marriages.
I have undergone 3 yrs of therapy - and will continue for sometime yet. I have beaten the anxiety states - am working on the negative thinking/depressive states - but joy is still very fleeting for me.
Jackie, Colorado, USA
Too far fetched?
The information you've shared on joy, anxiety, and depression ....and how an infant's nervous system is "grown" by interactions with the parent(s) is really mind-blowing!
Doesn't this mean that we now understand what allows joy and what causes depressions and anxiety disorders in adults all over the world?...that the stage is set for great mental health vs. not-so-great mental health in the first 2 or 3 years of a person's life?
Maybe the more society understands how important infant/caregiver interactions are.... the more adult mental health problems can be prevented from happening in the next generations?
Does that sound too far-fetched? This whole thing sounds revolutionary to me.
You got that right Karie! It's amazing isn't it.
Even so, the whole idea is actually a hard sell. Most folks think noticing the positive is "mamby pamby". I recently received a "I wish to unsubscribe" note from a subscriber to my monthly MyShrink UpDates. In that particular issue, I had emphasized the importance of up regulation and noticing the sounds and sensations that get evoked with the coming summer.
The reason the subscriber gave was: "too New Age for me". Which of course, just dumbfounded me. There is so much science built up around these concepts and my own clinical experience...well, I guess the ideas might need to be put into a different frame. And, I'm hoping to do just that in the coming months.
Thanks for your post and your support Karie,