Joy: A natural force for creativity which you can cultivate every day

As the last whistle blew in the 2023 Rugby World Cup Final, South Africans everywhere erupted in jubilant celebrations.  Relief from the nail-biting championship flooded the nation and, despite the many challenges South African citizens face, the win reignited hope. The joyful mood has ignited 'possibility thinking' and people are filled with gratitude and courage in facing the country’s future. “If we can do this, what else can we achieve?!”

It is easy to find joy as winners of a major sporting event. What about finding joy in the daily grind of life? What about war and death? The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu opens with these words by Tutu: “We are fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite it, that we discover the possibility of true joy... Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak… Yet, as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

Cultivating joy is something very personal and powerful which can have ripple effects on all parts of our lives. I recently opened a medical symposium of 70 palliative doctors and medical professionals with a joy-focussed creativity exercise. These incredible doctors are surrounded by illness and suffering all day. They are faced with relieving pain, dealing with depression, and helping distressed families make tough decisions. Yet, the more pressured and demanding our lives and our work are, the more we need this connection to our inner joy and creativity.

Before I get to the exercise, let’s take a closer look at joy and how it relates to creativity.


Joy is a choice

Unlike happiness, which relies on positive ‘happenings’, joy can be cultivated inside of us, even in difficult circumstances. Joy is more of a decision or a mindset, than a feeling. We can foster joy in the midst of stress or hard times.  

“Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Paul Ekman, a famed emotions researcher, has written that joy is associated with feelings as varied as: pleasure, amusement, excitement, relief, wonder, ecstasy or bliss, exultation, radiant pride, elevation, and gratitude.


How are joy and creativity related?

While the scientific evidence demonstrates a strong relationship between joy and creativity, it's important to note that the exact nature of this relationship can be complex and may vary from person to person. Joy can serve as a motivator for creative expression and problem-solving, but other factors, such as individual personality traits and external influences, can also play a role in determining how joy and creativity are linked in a specific context. Here are four ways that joy and creativity are linked:

  1. Dopamine and reward system: Joy is associated with the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine in the brain's reward system. Dopamine is not only related to pleasure but also plays a crucial role in creativity. Studies have shown that elevated dopamine levels can enhance creative thinking and problem-solving abilities. For example, a study published in the journal "Psychological Science" in 2014 found that participants who experienced positive moods (including joy) were more creative in problem-solving tasks. 
  1. Positive emotions and divergent thinking: Joy is a positive emotion, and research has demonstrated that experiencing positive emotions can broaden one's thought-action repertoire. This can lead to more divergent thinking, which is a critical component of creativity. The "broaden-and-build" theory proposed by Barbara Fredrickson suggests that positive emotions like joy can expand an individual's cognitive and behavioural resources, leading to increased creativity. 
  1. Flow state: Joyful experiences can often lead to a state of flow, where you are fully immersed in an activity and completely focused on it. The flow state is characterised by heightened creativity and problem-solving abilities. Studies on flow states, such as those conducted by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have shown that people are most creative when they are in a state of flow, which is often triggered by engaging in activities that bring joy and satisfaction. 
  1. Improved cognitive flexibility: Joy and positive emotions can enhance cognitive flexibility, allowing you to consider a broader range of ideas and solutions. This flexibility is a key component of creativity. Research published in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" in 2001 showed that people who experience positive emotions tend to exhibit greater cognitive flexibility and creativity in tasks.


How do I cultivate joy?

“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy. It simply depends on the attitudes, the perspectives, and the reactions we bring to situations and to our relationships with other people. When it comes to personal happiness there is a lot that we as individuals can do.” Dalai Lama XIV,

Cultivating joy, just like cultivating a young sapling, is a gradual process which requires persistence and effort. The Book of Joy names eight pillars of joy, each of which can be turned into a practice to cultivate joy. These include:

  1. Perspective: recognising that there are many different angles to every situation
  2. Humility: remaining unpretentious, unassuming and willing to laugh at yourself
  3. Humour: taking things lightly, laughter and seeing the funny side
  4. Acceptance: the only place where change can begin
  5. Forgiveness: freeing ourselves from the past
  6. Gratitude: being aware and thankful for every good thing
  7. Compassion: turning outwards, concern and kindness for others
  8. Generosity: being open-hearted and having an abundance mindset

Different strategies work for different people, so it's important to explore what practices resonate with you personally and integrate them into your daily routine. Over time, these habits can help you create a more joyful and fulfilling life.


Creative exercise

We are often so bogged down by the pressures and stresses of life, that we don’t engage in activities that spark true joy. In fact, sometimes we even forget what a joyful experience feels like. It is likely we have had at least some joyful experiences in our lives; these may have been clearest and simplest when we were young children.

What sparks joy for you? I invite you to create a mind map with the word ‘joy’ in the middle and spokes radiating out with all the things that bring you joy (find out more about mind maps here). Think of as many ideas as you can. Let you mind wander so that your ideas branch out into further thoughts like the diagram below.


If this exercise seems silly or trivial to you, I want to encourage you to give it a try.

Now that you have done your mind map , you might be saying “Celia, it is all very well to write down things that bring me joy, but I just don’t have time for this. I have so many demands.” I want to encourage you to think of one small practical, actionable step you can take to bring some of that joy into your life. If you love travel, but don’t have time for a big trip, can you take an hour to explore your city or town with fresh eyes? Take a walk, and at every turn, choose the less familiar route. If animals bring you joy, might you pop into a pet shop for half an hour to play with the animals? I love popping into a good stationer, just to test the pens.

The next step is to put this step into your calendar right away! Tell a friends or family member what you plan to do. It’s good to find an accountability partner to make sure you do what you promised yourself.


I hope that short exercise has allowed you to pause and connect with the joy and creativity which sometimes get buried under the pressures of life and societal expectations. There is no limit to your creative potential! Our hope is that you will keep developing and delighting in your creativity!

Julia Cameron says,

“In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well is ideally like a well-stocked fishpond.”

We need to stock our inner well with joyful experiences. My husband loves fishing. Ironically he stocks his figurative fishpond by going fishing!



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