So often, people talk about the struggles they experience, and how they’ve grown from the pain in their lives. It’s true, but the sentiment is often that it takes pain to grow. What’s not often discussed is how human beings grow from joy, from being in connection; that is, how we heal and grow stronger from the joyous moments in our lives.
These moments might be in the form of comfort: the savoring of a warm cup of hot chocolate on a cool night, or the texture of flannel sheets, sharing a smile with a stranger on the street. Or, it might be in the form of connection: laughing with friends, holding hands with someone you care about, or the feeling of a hug from someone you love. Think now. Feel it. Let the experience of love linger in your mind and heart. How does it feel to be loved? This is how we grow from joy, how healing happens.
Recently, I attended two separate seminars, each on the same subject led by different speakers. The first spoke of trauma and how we are all broken because any disconnection causes brain trauma. She said that our minds can mend, but even with years of “attaching,” as she termed it, we still sift through our hearts and find the broken edges, the places where connections have gone wrong. I looked around the room; people were having difficulty keeping their eyes open. Exhaustion often occurs when we feel overwhelmed. No one made eye contact. Many people looked blank. This is an understandable reaction when we’re told that we are infinitely broken.
The second seminar was led by a researcher and doctor. He talked of the joy of holding his children when they were babies, watching them grow; he spoke of his passion for mental health and educational reform, a society focused on wellness and connection. He smiled as he counted the blessings he’d experienced, he laughed with us, easily making jokes about himself and his own foibles; he told stories of how he’d learned to parent—not being perfect, but always striving to understand, to grow. He thanked all the past researchers who’d led him to create a path of clarity in the field of mental health. He thanked us, all therapists in the room, for creating the experiences he wrote about. He talked about how we all build on each other’s ideas, how we’re all more connected than not, and how everyone matters. He held the potential and the beauty of human nature in his words, and I felt that. I looked around the room. Everyone was beaming.
When I think of the second seminar, other happy moments come to mind and I feel a flood of warm, happy feelings. Even now, as I type this, I’m smiling, my face is relaxed, no hint of tension in my jaw or shoulders. I’m breathing easily, feeling the warmth in my body of this memory. I remember it as though I’m living it now. Notice what you’re feeling as you read this. How is your breathing? Is it easy and relaxed? How is it different from how you felt when you were reading about the first seminar? Moment-to-moment awareness of positive feelings allows the positive experience to bloom, to be savored.
We all share emotions through our mirror neurons, though we might not realize it, and our minds create imprints of these interactions (Damasio). Our inner relationships (memories of relationships) are as vivid as our present interactions, and we connect one memory to others of their kind. In a sense, thoughts of a feather, flock together. So, when we hurt over something, it reminds us of other times we’ve felt pain, (and the brain actually lights up for emotional pain on MRI’s in the area where physical pain is expressed), and when we feel joy, it reminds us of other happy moments, and it strengthens us. It makes it possible for us to imagine other moments of joy, connection, comfort, and clarity.
This is why it’s so important to seek out empowering relationships, such as therapy, where we feel valued and heard. Our relationships—held in mind or in person—inform how we see ourselves, others, and the world. When you feel good in one moment, you’re more likely to seek out other connections similar to the one you’re experiencing in your mind.
Recent neuroscience research supports this. It shows that our brains actually create new neural pathways in response to our experiences. Experiences change the way our neurons fire and rewire in our minds. If these experiences are positive, new neural pathways form that increase our sense of health (viewed as integration), happiness, and connectedness to ourselves and others.
In other words, the more we have positive experiences in our lives, the more the neurons responding to these experiences, wire together. The more they wire together, the easier it is to experience more pleasure because those synaptic connections in the brain are strengthened. It’s circular. Depression works in an opposite way; we focus more on the negative because we feel bad. The keys to feeling better are self-compassion and a pairing together of sad feelings with exercises like the one below (which create new neural wiring patterns). Mindful attention to our emotions—both hard and pleasurable—enables us to move past difficult experiences, and to be open to positive ones. This could be called healing from pain by growing from joy! A true course of resiliency.
In fact, sharing difficult experiences with caring people actually changes the way we perceive those negative experiences; memories become less negative over time because they are paired with neural connections that are infused with being heard and cared about in a responsive connection. Over time, “pruning” of neural connections that are infused with negative experiences wither away. New neural connections are created that diffuse our perceptions of negative experiences. Pretty cool, huh?
This is why it’s so important to feel a sense of connection with the people around you, and why therapy that focuses on mindful awareness, with a person you feel connected to, creates transformation. It literally changes the way we relate to ourselves and those we love (Lewis).
Good therapy, like any positive relationship, creates increased clarity, self-awareness, self-esteem, a desire to create more relationships like the good ones you have, and an increased sense of zest for life. This is based on Relational-Cultural Theory’s perspective of the “Five Good Things” in what Relational-Cultural Theory calls, a growth-fostering relationship (Walker and Rosen). We all need growth-fostering relationships in order to feel emotionally and physically alive and healthy. Babies can die if they aren’t touched. One of the greatest forms of suffering is isolation. Every moment in positive connection is a healing moment. The scholars who created Relational-Cultural Theory knew that, and neuroscience supports this view. Without others, we wither. With others, we are more fully ourselves: vibrant, connected, loved, and joyful.
Suggested exercise: Think of a time when you felt fully connected to another being. It could be to a friend, an acquaintance, a partner, a parent, a teacher, an animal—someone who reminded you of your inherent worth. Feel the connection. If possible, pick someone who is still in your life in a positive way. The following exercise is meant for you to go at your own pace, and the questions are merely guides.
Bring to mind all the qualities of an interaction or experience you had with someone you love:
What was the day like?
Was it sunny, warm, or cool?
Could you feel the air touching your hair or skin?
Can you feel it now?
Where were you?
How did your body feel?
What do you notice right now as you’re sensing this moment?
Sense your connection with the other person.
Bring to mind the feeling of touch (in body or heart).
Notice how you feel, in your body, as you connect your interior experience to the feeling of being with this loved one.
Notice your breathing; is it slow and deep?
How was this other person responding? Feel the sense of that!
Now notice your body.
Has the temperature in your body changed?
Did your body soften?
How does this experience change your mood, your thoughts?
Does focusing on your breath or body-sensations enhance your awareness of the experience?
You can invoke the pleasure of this experience any time you want, simply by visualizing connection. Our minds don’t know the difference between what is visualized and what is actually being experienced (Damasio). When you imagine the joy of connection, your body physically changes. Your feelings about yourself change because the neurotransmitter, oxytocin is being released from the hypothalamus, which reduces anxiety and increases love, relaxation, and connection.
Every time you visualize connection, you strengthen your brain. Neurons in your brain are firing and rewiring, becoming stronger through one simple exercise. The more you do this, the more you strengthen the positive side of who you are. You can use this exercise any time you have a hard moment.
- Damasio, Antonio. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness.
- Lewis, Thomas, MD, Fari Amani, MD, Lannon, Richard, MD. (2001). A General Theory of Love.
- Siegel, Daniel. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
- Walker, Maureen, Rosen, Wendy B. (2004). How Connections Heal: Stories from Relational-Cultural Theory
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