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Two Kinds of Joy

How You Can Bring Both Kinds Into Your Life

Positive elder woman enjoying time in her garden.
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Patty taught me an important truth about happiness and joy. When I met this red-haired 82-year-old at a local senior center, she said she loved being older, and that she knew just being alive was special. “I love living alone, springtime, and gardening. If I don’t get things done it is okay. Also, going shopping, and going to church.” She went on to say that she has experienced a lot of difficulties. She was divorced, her daughter had been murdered 20 years ago and then this year her daughter-in-law died. She has financial problems and she has no grandkids. She surprised me by following this sad litany of woes by saying next, “I would rate myself as very happy.

Patty demonstrates that being happy and joyful does not depend on having avoided setbacks, failures, tragedies, and losses. No matter what has happened to us, we can all bring more joy into our daily life starting right now. It does require some psychological work to stay connected to our vitality. And we do need to grieve the losses that we experience as we age.

Senior friends enjoying an outdoor dinner party together on the beach.
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What brings pleasure and joy now?

I’ll begin by sharing some comments from my interviews with several people over 70 about what brings them joy and pleasure at this point in their lives. I’ll talk more about the two different kinds of joys, but notice how inexpensive and readily available many of the cited joys are.

Bridget, 71, is a former nurse, a small, energetic woman with black curly hair, who lives in upstate New York. She told me her pleasures are “cooking Italian food, spending time with my girlfriends, gardening and my garden, reading, my book club, being in my house, and not downsizing.”

Stuart, 75, who lives in a small town in New Hampshire, reported that what brings him joy is exercising outdoors every day all year round, skating, skiing, jogging, hiking mountains, and also talking with his wife, gardening, his job as a counselor and his clients.

Jim, at 85, a former dentist lives in a retirement community and uses a walker most days. He said, “My pleasures are waking up feeling rested, the feeling I get in church, dinner with friends, music, a soft wind blowing in my face, watching the birds, and walking with no pain.

Myself. On the eve of my 89th birthday, joys for me include hearing from one of my grandchildren, my writing, the flowers on my balcony, my dance class, days when I feel no stress, my morning coffee and newspaper, onion rings, and playing Wordle with Peter.

My thoughts. Our lives evolve and what brings us joy changes over time as we age. Even in this tiny sample, we can see that. In their 70s, some people like Stuart, say to me, “My 70s are just like my 60s. But when I probed a bit, Stuart admitted he was a little slower and had more issues with his sleep now compared to his 60s. He also works fewer hours. But he knew he was far more active than most of his friends. And he adds, “I am just very lucky.”

Senior couple walking happy & relaxed on the beach together.
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Many people in their 70s feel some new freedom — they may no longer work, their parents are gone and their children launched. They head out to camp at National Parks, take cruises, and visit family they haven’t seen in years. A number of people, like Stuart, in their seventies, still enjoy sports like tennis, skiing, and hiking.

In their eighties, fewer people travel and they are usually less active than before. As we age we begin to enjoy our daily routines, the simple pleasures right at home. Older people find pleasure in the outdoors, gardens, and flowers. Many of us begin to notice the birds for the first time in our lives.

Joyful Routines

But what I am hearing from my readers is, “Katharine, tell me what I, myself, can do to feel more joy and happiness in my life.” And I do have practical tips for you.

Active senior women jogging in the park outdoors & enjoying sports.
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1. Exercise. If you are not already doing this, create a weekly exercise routine and stick to it. This is an almost surefire way to feel more joy. As long as your exercise is something you actually enjoy. Don’t count steps unless you really like walking. Experiment until you find an exercise that works for you. My routine is walking two or three days a week and two dance classes.

Thoughtful elder carpenter working in his workshop.
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2. Stop and Savor. This is creating the habit of stopping ourselves in midstream several times a day. For just a minute or two, be still and look around. Enjoy the birds or the flowers or our inner peace of the moment. Savor means to really focus on experiencing the present moment and enjoying it completely. It is about being aware and noticing. All too often we feel we are too busy to stop for anything. We will notice the flowers after our work is complete. And the catch is our work is never finished. Stop and Savor is a way to bring joy into your life today, and the payoff is terrific.

Two Kinds of Joy

The joy I have been talking about so far is an emotion or feeling of happiness and delight. It may be just a momentary feeling of pleasure. This kind of joy is just about the same thing as happiness and the words can be used interchangeably.

But joy also has a different and deeper meaning from the joy described so far. This is what I call core joy. It comes from having meaning and purpose in your life. It brings well-being, fulfillment, and contentment in its wake. It can include selflessness and contributing to others’ well-being as well as your own. It is possible to feel this kind of deeper joy at the same time you are feeling unhappy, grief, pain, and sadness. So I will add a third joyful routine:

Woman volunteering in the park doing community outreach together.
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3. Be Involved. Find a place to contribute your unique strengths. Whether it’s with family, friends, community, church, or outside organizations, your input and support will make a difference — and bring core joy to you.

Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D., has sought to understand joy in her role as Associate Professor at the Thrive Center for Human Development in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests focus on the intersection of human thriving, moral, and spiritual development. King’s 2020 research study gives us some additional perspective on joy. According to her findings, it’s important that we are: (1) growing in authenticity and living more into one’s strengths, (2) growing in depth of relationships and contributing to others, and (3) living more aligned with one’s ethical and spiritual ideals.

Let’s take Bridget, the nurse who was described earlier. She is a good example of what I mean by core joy. She found her life purpose in caregiving. In our recent interview, she told me that she has always been a helper. She started as a young teenager caring for her grandfather, and she helped care for him during several illnesses and as he was dying. She chose to be a nurse, a helping profession, partly because of this experience. Throughout the years, beyond her work as a nurse, Bridget has helped neighbors and friends who were ill or dying. She tells me that this work has brought her great joy. She is spiritual though she no longer attends church regularly. She prays informally and takes the sacrament when she feels that she is getting overwhelmed by grief. She does not avoid grief, she works through it. She believes in Karma, “If I lead a good life my life will be where I want it to be, now and forever.”

Elder woman paying respects at a grave.
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My thoughts. Bridget’s life appears to have unfolded with amazing consistency. This clarity of purpose has brought her fulfillment and the deepest kind of core joy in her life. She has learned how to work with illness and death and not burn out. She has been able to accompany people in their last stages of life. She has stayed connected to her vitality by using prayer and rituals that work for her to manage her emotions. I think she shows us two other things — that managing grief must be done. This requires noticing when we need rejuvenation, and doing what have found works for us. Last, and most important, we all need to find a purpose for our older years. Joy will follow.

I’ll end with a quote:

“It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.” ~ Winston Churchill
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