Tidings of Discomfort and Joy

9 min readDec 21, 2023

By Marlis Jansen with Gabrielle Sills

The message of “happy holidays” is everywhere right now. It’s the go-to greeting for at least another week, and even when we’re not saying it to each other, we’re all still thinking it as we’re bombarded with images of happy families, mountains of gifts, sumptuous meals, and snowy adventures.

But are the holidays really as happy as they’re depicted? The answer as we all know is that holidays can be… complicated. The reality is very different for many people. When I practiced as a marriage and family therapist, the holidays were often the most challenging times to get through. Some did not have families with whom to celebrate. Some were celebrating with family out of obligation. Many felt financially stretched, overworked and just overall sad. It doesn’t help to be bombarded with images of a shiny, happy life. It is only human to compare ourselves to the life we see in these images.

A myopic pursuit of happiness — during the holidays or any other time — is unlikely to work. To understand why, writer Ingrid Fetell Lee explains that there’s actually a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness, on the one hand, is a “broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives, and it’s often measured over time.” To be happy, we generally all want to feel good about our health and our work and our relationships and our finances, and to top it all off with a sense of meaning and purpose. That’s a tall order! Joy, on the other hand, is much simpler: it’s about “feeling good in the moment” — its exact definition is “an intense momentary experience of positive emotion.”

The fact that happiness is actually measured over time is what makes it so hard to pursue. It’s something that needs to be cultivated over time. Joy is much more achievable day in and day out. And when you cultivate a practice of finding joy, all of your moments of joy will accumulate, and you’re likely to look up one day and find that you’re actually quite happy.

Finding joy

In her book Joyful, Lee explains that finding joy is easier than people think. Children, after all, find it quite easily and frequently, whether it’s splashing in a puddle or making a funny face or reading a new book. Somewhere along the way, we forget about how easy it is to find joy in the world around us.

So how can we all find such joy, like our younger selves did so easily way back when?

The first step is to think about what gives us joy, so that we’re primed to see it in the world around us. You should read Lee’s book in its entirety, but some examples that she shares are nature, color and symmetry. One of my favorite examples she gives is round shapes. You may have noticed this in yourself, but it turns out that many of us get joy from round shapes because there’s “something in our brains that finds a sense of ease and playfulness around curves,” potentially due to the fact that we evolved in environments where sharp things in nature often meant danger (teeth, thorns, etc). Whatever the reason, round shapes, unlike angular ones, can evoke a sense of ease or even playfulness in us. Lee gives the example of a round coffee table, around which you might agree we often feel much more playful and connected to each other.

The amazing thing about joy is that it’s a feeling that can be cultivated. And very importantly, it can be cultivated without other people. This is not to suggest that relationships and community are not necessary. But we can find joy independently of others: seeking out more time in nature, making our home environment feel more joyful, and finding other outlets of creative expression.

For me, I find joy in beautiful views. So I get out and hike whenever I can. I also experience joy when I create and / or eat a well prepared meal. So I cook a lot. And a good board game with family or friends also brings me joy. I notice that the joy associated with each of these experiences has its own unique qualities. While contemplating a beautiful view brings a quiet, deeply felt sense of wellbeing, food is more immediately felt in the body. And a board game elicits a more playful sense of joy.


Those sparks of joy are worth their weight in gold — so how can we get as much bang for our buck from these special moments?

One of the key habits for finding joy is learning to “savor.” Like so many related terms — mindfulness and gratitude, to name a couple — the benefit of savoring comes largely in training ourselves simply to notice. Once we identify something that sparks joy in us, we can pause and savor that thing before moving on, thereby extracting even more benefit from whatever sparked joy in the first place.

Psychologist Fred Bryant shares a lot on savoring as a guest on the Hidden Brain podcast. He points out that “we all spend more time counting our troubles than our blessings” — a tendency to dwell on the negative, which makes sense biologically given the outsized outcomes that dangers can have vs pleasures (i.e. death or injury). Negative information is processed more readily, and so we’re biologically primed to spend greater attention on that which may harm us than on that which gives us pleasure.

The key, he shares, is lingering. By finding more joy in the moment, we can make each spark last longer, the cumulative effect of which is greater happiness over time. And it’s worth pointing out that the most savor-worthy moments are in fact those everyday things like a bakery full of amazing smells or a picture-perfect sky during our commute home that can be the most valuable.

And it’s not just external stimuli that are worth savoring — pay attention to your internal feelings as well. Moments of pride, accomplishment, appreciation can be so fleeting, but taking the moment to savor them will give you joy and even encode memories for you to remember those feelings later in the future.

Don’t forget about play

One of the most obvious ways to create joy is simply, to play. Just like children do and just like we did when we were younger.

It’s not a coincidence that kids spend so much of their time playing — we are hardwired to do so. Evidence of play has been found across cultures and as far back as we have records of people. The same goes for animals — Lee shares how we’ve seen play across the animal kingdom, including crocodiles giving each other piggyback rides and turtles playing with balls.

The fact that so many of us, as serious grown ups, play so little has more to do with our societal demands and expectations than what is natural. And it really is so good for us. In addition to it being fun to play, play promotes our social and emotional development, in addition to flexible thinking and problem-solving, resilience and abilities to adapt to changing circumstances. It can even boost us into powerful flow states while we work, by setting aside immediate worries and placing us in the presence of the moment (Lee, 2018).

So on that note, introduce some playfulness in your lives. Playing games and reserving time for creative pursuits like improv or painting or playing musical instruments are great, but it’s also the smaller things. Introducing round shapes to your home or beanbag chairs to your office or finding a few minutes to play with a cute puppy or baby.

Discomfort is normal

Even if we become joy-finding machines, periods of pain will be inevitable. And that’s probably especially true during the holidays. Perhaps you’re feeling a breakup extra hard right now or are bothered by something a family member has said.

It’s important to remember that discomfort and joy can coexist — they are not mutually exclusive. During these frustrating moments, we don’t have to shut down completely and ignore the opportunities for joy. We can experience highs and lows in the same day, hour, or even at the same time, noticing our abilities to hold both at the same time.

And luckily, rough times actually help us take advantage of joyful moments when they do arrive. As Lee proffers, grieving a loved one, for example, can build the gratitude we had for that person and ensure we’re more present with the loved ones we’re lucky enough to still have. This is a sentiment we hear often from now-parents who have previously gone through infertility: those periods were so difficult that they now rarely get bothered by even the most challenging of tantrums with their children they were eventually lucky enough to have.

Joy and wealth

“Money can’t buy you happiness,” as the saying goes — but can wealth buy you joy? At Graddha, we often look at the many kinds of wealth each person can have; in addition to one’s financial assets, wealth is comprised of so much more, including human, intellectual, social, and spiritual capitals. We’re all lucky to have different combinations of these assets , and when we can use them to further our own sense of purpose in life — that is when we can connect our wealth to our joy.

One example is the value that was placed on on art during my upbringing. My parents, both artists, exposed me and my siblings to all kinds of experiences from the more traditional museum art to combing the stalls of artisan markets from Mexico City to Paris. We had easels set up in our home with models and friends painting together. As kids, we were always encouraged to make our own art. My mother still creates masterpieces with clay. I knew it was unconventional and it took time to learn how courageous it is to be an artist by vocation rather than avocation.

Art, I now believe, can be a significant lever for change in society. Art can send serious messages. I am now able to purposefully increase my own joy with the many pieces of art in our home, most of which were made by family and friends. We also use art to tell Graddha’s story on our website. And that art was created by someone I met when I was six years old — Pierre Flandreau. Pierre was one of my father’s first painting friends. The depth of his relationships with our family is now part of Graddha. And every time I think about that, I feel joyful.

Back to you now. Use your capitals. Your friends, communities, knowledge, assets, resources, skills, and yes, your dollars, are all tools that can be deployed to structure your life and ensure you’re encountering enough joy to build your happinesses.

Finding joy this week

With Christmas and New Years upon us, it’s the perfect time to put these ideas into action.

  • Identify what gives you joy: it’s different for everyone. Maybe it’s hot coffee or an organized closet or spotting dragonflies — think about what gives you joy.
  • Add something new to your physical environment: see how your internal self reacts to a change in the world around you. Consider a splash of color or something round.
  • Design your days accordingly: we’re more in control than we think and can stack the cards in favor of us running into joyful moments. Don’t wait for those moments to find you! Get up five minutes early to enjoy your hot drink before heading out of the house; wear something festive; drive down the street with your favorite holiday decorations on your way home.
  • Notice the sparks: they’re fleeting, so keep your eyes open for them before they pass you by.
  • Savor the sparks: pay as much attention to the positive moments as you would to the bad. Consider, for example, opening up holiday cards when you have a few minutes to actually relish the messages; try writing down any particularly good feelings you’re having for posterity.

However you’re celebrating, we at Graddha wish you a festive couple of weeks filled with good food and many opportunities to experience and notice sparks of joy. Happy (and joyful) holidays!


Lee, I. F. (2018). Joyful. Little, Brown Spark.

Vedantam, Shankar. “You 2.0: Slow Down!” Hidden Brain. https://open.spotify.com/episode/6fVRhIsbN4uyVsJzMy0VmU?si=fe65142a069c44db




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