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How to Find Joy in Your Life

by Patrick R. Harrison, MA, Jennifer L. Smith, MA, and Fred B. Bryant, PhD

Wellness image

From making sense of com­plex medical information and navigating the dizzying array of treatment options to managing stress and strug­gling with worry, the host of challenges brought on by cancer is enough to tax even the most resilient person. It’s no surprise that much has been written about successful ways to cope with cancer, including the benefits of rely­ing on peer support groups and keeping a healthy “big picture” perspective. Clearly, there’s much to be gained from finding useful ways to handle the adver­sity that a cancer diagnosis often brings.

However, it is possible to become so preoccupied coping with cancer that you no longer find joy, wonder, gratitude, and pleasure in your daily life. People can become so busy reacting to the challenges of cancer that they stop proactively seeking out good things to enjoy. Research shows that the things we do to help reduce anxiety and sadess have little effect on how happy or satisfied we feel. In other words, just because we’re not sad, that doesn’t mean we’re happy.

Mindful savoring connects us with countless positive experiences – from marveling in awe at a beautiful sunset to basking in the pride of our accomplishments or those of our loved ones.

Author of Article photo

Patrick Harrison

Researchers have begun to demon­strate the psychological benefits of savoring, or being consciously aware of positive feelings while we’re experi­encing them. Mindful savoring connects us with countless positive experiences – from marveling in awe at a beautiful sunset to basking in the pride of our accomplishments or those of our loved ones. Learn how you can enhance sa­voring in your own life.

Become absorbed in a positive moment.
People often report enjoying themselves most after positive “flow” experiences – those moments when they became totally absorbed in what they were doing and lost all sense of time and place, such as being captivated by a favorite mystery novel. The key to savoring through absorption is simply experiencing the positive event as it un­folds without thinking too hard about it.

Author of Article photo

Jennifer Smith

Count your blessings.
Don’t allow cancer to blind you to the good things in your life. Whether it’s the joy of spending time with your family or the pleasure of going for a morning stroll, try to notice the good things around you. You can amplify feelings of joy by expressing gratitude for these good things inwardly or outwardly.

Share your good feelings with others.
Sharing our positive feelings with others is the strongest predictor of the level of enjoyment we experience. In fact, people who share their positive feelings with friends tend to have higher lev­els of overall happiness than those who don’t share their feel­ings. Whether you’re celebrating a birthday with close friends or hiking through a meadow with a loved one, tell the person you’re with what you appre­ciate about the moment.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Fred Bryant

Take a mental photograph.
During happy experiences, pause briefly and consciously note specific features you want to remember later. When building memories, search for, notice, and high­light the things you find most enjoyable. In the process, you not only pinpoint pleasurable aspects of the situation and enhance the intensity of joy in the pres­ent, but you also form clearer and more vivid memories you can more easily recall and share with others later.

Go on a savoring expedition.
One natural reaction to a cancer diagnosis is uncertainty, which often makes people anxious and afraid. If you have a hard time seeing the good in life, go out and look for something that brings you joy. It could be as simple as lying down in the grass and watching the clouds race across the sky or treating yourself to a trip to a museum you’ve always wanted to visit.

Research shows that no matter how it’s done, savoring not only enhances the quality of our lives, but it can also strengthen our immune system and promote physical health. Unfortunately, we’re often too busy, distracted, or worried to even notice, much less savor, positive moments.

The key is not to let coping with the challenges of cancer overshadow the joys in life. It’s important to make savoring a priority by setting time aside to engage in pleasant activities that you enjoy, despite the challenges you face.

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Patrick Harrison and Jennifer Smith are doctoral students in social psychol­ogy at Loyola University in Chicago, IL. Dr. Fred Bryant is a professor of social psychology at Loyola University, where he conducts research on savoring and positive emotions.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.