Your Brain LOVES Joy!
by Chris M. Coursey
Likely you have heard the catchy melody, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” This song is enjoyed around campfires, Sunday school classes and summer camps. George William Cooke wrote this tune nearly 100 years ago and called it “Joy in my heart.”1 We now know from neuroscience that Cooke was on to something when he penned his piece on joy.
Joy tends to be the missing ingredient in our marriages. In its purest state, joy is the ecstatic exchange where eyes sparkle then words, glances and expressions convey, “I am really glad to be with you!” We feel cherished. We feel special. We feel loved. We thrive when people light up to see us. Let’s be honest. We decided to get married in the first place because we believed there would be more joy together than apart. Over time the fire turned into a flickering spark. We don’t understand why or what we are missing. Genuine, glad-to-be-together joy can do more to bolster our marriage than better communication, will power, self-help books and good intentions.
Relational joy is the high-energy response when we walk into a room and someone’s face shines our way—and we light up in response. Joy is contagious. Joy grows with each shared glance. We feel an excitement well up within us. Brain science has much to say about joy, so does Scripture. Hebrews 12:2 says joy is the reason Jesus endured the cross.2 Joy is mentioned as one of the fruits of the Spirit. We read in Psalm 30:5 that joy has the final word when there is weeping.
When present, joy keeps relationships bigger than problems. While problems may need to be addressed, joy gives us the strength to face adversity. Joy is the fuel that best runs our relationships. Joy is the feeling our brain prefers over every other emotion. God so values joy that He created a specific region in our brain that grows in response to joy.3 This frontal area on the right side of the brain develops in response to facial expressions, voice tone and body language that says, “I’m glad to see you!”4
My friend Dr. Marcus Warner and I recently wrote a book about joy for married couples called, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages. We created this resource so couples can practice brain-friendly steps to start some serious joy. We introduce steps to “shrink the joy gap” in a marriage. The joy gap refers to the amount of time between moments of shared joy. More joyful interactions shrink this gap, while fewer moments of shared joy increase the gap. When joy is high, we feel connected. When joy fades, we feel alone and overwhelmed. There is nothing fun about a large joy gap.
To start and sustain joy, Dr. Warner and I created 15-minute exercises couples can put into practice. A little joy goes a long way, so these exercises can heat up your marriage!
The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages is beneficial for couples who want to rekindle the flames of joy as well as newly married couples who want to start out on a secure foundation. We use the acrostic PLAN to describe four habits that boost marriage joy. Let’s take a moment to review how to make a meaningful PLAN for your marriage.
PLAN stands for Play together, Listen for emotions, Appreciate daily and Nurture a rhythm. Each habit provides an opportunity to grow joy and develop more intimacy.
- Habit #1 is playing together. Play is one of the best brain habits couples can practice. The human brain is wired for play. Play is a reflection of the joy in a marriage. Joyful couples play together. Dr. Warner and I encourage couples to play through special events, social routines and relational sex. Great marriages are built on great friendships and great friends play together often.
- Habit #2 is listening for emotions, which refers to our ability to keep relationship bigger than problems. This important brain hack directs our focus on what matters most; our beloved’s heart. Many couples fall into unwanted patterns where problems are amplified. All too often we switch into “fix-it” mode. When we try to fix our spouse instead of listen for emotions, our significant other feels minimized and misunderstood. Listening for emotions means we validate; “Wow, you sound very upset about this!” then we offer comfort to find something to feel thankful for. Comfort asks, “What helps when you feel this way?” Validation and comfort open the door for mutual satisfaction where we feel seen and valued.
- Habit #3 is appreciate daily. Appreciation is “packaged joy” that we can take with us everywhere we go. When we use appreciation, we highlight the good stuff. We review what is good from our day, what we value about our spouse and, with some practice, we start to scan the environment for positive things to enjoy. When our appreciation tank runs dry, we become resentful and critical. Go and express some appreciation today with your spouse, then watch what happens!
- Habit #4 is nurture a rhythm. We can only handle so much joy before we must pause to catch our breath. Rest is the counterpart to joy. When we alternate joy with rest we create a refreshing rhythm that brings us together and keeps our interactions manageable and meaningful. Go on, take a nice, deep breath!
Four simple habits can shorten the joy gap in your marriage, change the course of a bad day, even bring a smile to you and your spouse’s face!
2…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2, NKJV
3This region is known as the right hemisphere orbital prefrontal cortex.
4Learn more in the THRIVE-at-Home curriculum.
Rev. Chris M. Coursey is the president of THRIVEtoday, a non-profit ministry focusing on
training leaders and communities in the 19 skills that make relationships work. Chris is an
ordained minister, pastoral counselor, published author, curriculum designer and international speaker. Chris is the husband of Jen and the father of two young boys, Matthew and Andrew. Learn more about Chris and Jen, read their blogs and skill thoughts at thrivetoday.org. Discover additional 4 Habits resources including marriage small group curriculum at happyhappymarriage.org.
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