the HAES files: Joy At Every Size

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Fall Ferguson, JD, MA

Here are some things I know about joy:

The cult classic Harold and Maude (1971) explores (in a really quirky, dark way) how joy arises from participation: “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead really. They're just backing away from life.”

I know that joy is abundantly available and yet elusive.  It arises in the doing, in the being, in the living.  You can’t just decide to have more joy; you have to participate.

I know that you can’t hold onto joy.  The moment you try to grasp it, it’s gone, and the routine of life returns with dirty dishes, laundry, and the work-a-day world.

I know that joy is hard to define.  Sometimes it’s an overwhelming moment, a big squishy lovely rush of emotion that makes it hard to swallow.  Sometimes it’s quiet and steady, like a warm, fleecy blanket.

I know that joy does not come from material things, or money, or status, or from anything external to ourselves.  Joy comes from connection, meaning, laughter, play, and love.

I know that in a moment of arising joy, we are fully present, fully human, fully ourselves.

Joy & Health: A Matter of Science

But why write about joy in a blog devoted to promoting Health At Every Size® ideas?  In my blog post last month, I promised (threatened?) to explore the multi-dimensional nature of health.  When I contemplated where to start, I kept coming back to one of my core beliefs about health: the importance of joy.  And because we don’t talk much about “beliefs” in the HAES community, I decided to investigate the research.

My search of the medical databases for articles about joy and health revealed the existence of a large number of medical researchers with the first or last name of Joy, but few reported studies.  The emerging science of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is making headway in demonstrating the power and importance of what we intuitively describe as the “mind-body connection,” but PNI studies tend to focus on negative influences upon health such as stress or depression rather than focusing on positive influences such as joy.

I found some evidence (mostly in the psychology databases) of a relationship between positive emotions and health.  One study differentiated between “joy” and “interest” in older adults.  While interest (defined as engagement or curiosity) was not associated with any effect upon health, joy was positively correlated with both lower morbidity and lower mortality.  Joy is also associated with many aspects of well-being, including feelings of vigor, strength, confidence, and competency (p. 53).

A Sense of Coherence

Experiencing joy also facilitates the lasting development of physical, intellectual, and social skills, according to an article in the Review of General Psychology: “Importantly, these new resources are durable and can be drawn on later, long after the instigating experience of joy has subsided” (p. 305).  And it turns out, these skills are essential to good health.  Israeli sociologist Aaron Antonovsky developed a theory of “salutogenesis” (origins of health) based on his work with Holocaust survivors.  He found that individuals with a strong “sense of coherence” fostered by what he called “generalized resistance resources” (GRRs) enjoyed better health.  High levels of GRRs, namely physical, intellectual, and emotional skills that facilitate coping and a positive outlook, are consistent with higher levels of health and longevity.  How great is it that we can develop these skills by opening ourselves to joy?

One qualitative study, titled “Joy Without Demands,” looked at the use of clowns with children in hospitals.  Putting aside my personal issues with clowns (long story), the article highlighted for me the way in which the experience of joy takes us out of our conditioned existence and into the present moment:

This joy without demands does not put the child under any obligation.  There is only the “here-and-now,” which promotes the feeling of freedom from demands and counter-demands.  The hospital clowns require nothing in return—they are simply there and provide what the child needs.  The question is whether this helps the child “just be” who he/she is deep down—a child free from disease and suffering.  When no demands are made on the child to be good, cooperate, be brave, or look happy, “a safe area” for recovery is created.

This “safe area” of joy transcends our cultural experiences of being judged and self-judgment, of striving to live up to expectations, and our experiences of stigma, bias, and low self-esteem.  The joy brought by the clowns offered the children a place where the “otherness” of illness and disease was irrelevant.  The article also noted how joy equalized the otherness of their bodies: “In the relaxed state of joy, the hospital clowns acknowledge and affirm the children as well as the staff: ‘You are seen and accepted just the way you are, your entire body too!’’’  For those of us whose bodies are culturally constructed as transgressive, the idea that joy offers a path to body acceptance is inspiring.

More Than a Means to Lifestyle Change

Surgeon General Regina Benjamin recorded a New Year’s message in early January 2012 exhorting us to “Put the Joy Back Into Health.”  [Caution: this video does contain one regrettable reference to “wanting to fit into a smaller pair of jeans.”]  This short video contains a positive public health message, no doubt.  Nevertheless, Dr. Benjamin’s exhortation to “never underestimate the power of joy in health” is couched in terms of making lifestyle changes.  To me, this leaves something out of the equation.

Similarly, Dean Ornish talks about using joy as a way to motivate people to engage in sustainable lifestyle changes: “Joy and love are powerful, sustainable motivators, but fear and deprivation are not.”  I don’t disagree with this statement, but I believe that the importance of joy goes beyond motivating us to eat well or exercise.  These instrumental arguments obscure the true importance of joy.

Joy & Health: A Matter of Faith

This may be heresy in a community that advocates for an evidence-based approach to health, but here goes: maybe what is really important about the connection between joy and health goes beyond what we can prove with medical and psychological studies and beyond the instrumental notion that joy motivates us to eat our veggies or go for a walk.

Einstein is credited with saying “everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”  There is a dimension of health that transcends what can be studied or measured.  Joy speaks to that dimension.

When it comes down to it, I am advocating for joy as a matter of both science and faith.  There is science to back up claims that joy is important for health and well-being.  And the truth is, even if there were no science to back it up, I would still be a huge fan of joy.

5 Comments to “the HAES files: Joy At Every Size”

  1. I cannot tell you how much joy I got from looking at this article and seeing an image and a quote from Harold and Maude! I’m fond of saying that it’s one of the few feel-good movies about suicide in existence. It’s also one of my all-time favorite romantic movies.

    And as much as I like getting fact-based health advice, I look at seeking joy from the perspective that even if it doesn’t work in a quantifiable way to improve my physical health, it certainly can’t hurt me.

  2. what a wonderful topic! I think fun is missing in our lives in many ways, and definately the experience and recognition of joy is largely unrecognised. We have a society so obsessed with the getting of fill in the blank, and the promotion of the idea that only once we have X can we be happy! To counter this I came up with a motto I share with my clients and is whereever I can put it: “Be curious, have fun and keep playing with your food.” Perhaps I need to consider the role of joy. Althought I think as we remain curious, have fun and continue to play, then joy would be the natural offspring of that perhaps?

    • I love the idea of telling adults to “play with their food.” How refreshing. And I agree that curiosity, fun, and play are how we open ourselves up to joy…

  3. This is a great subject for a column about HAES, for lots of not very “scientific” reasons, but please note my use of quotation marks, above.

    I’m with Einstein–that is to say, much of value in life cannot be quantified, weighed, or measured. I think that joy, in particular, is not merely good for us; I think it may be part of life’s essence and vitality. A robot or computer cannot experience joy, although it might be programmed to simulate it.

    My favorite friends are those who can and do experience joy; I recently saw a suicide averted by someone who discovered joy in their life for the first time in 10 years. I have a cousin who had a husband who was good by many measures, but she had to get out of the marriage because his lack of a joyful spirit was a total drag on her. They remained friends.

    Bill Fabrey
    Mt. Marion, NY

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