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Joy and the Brain

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    • #26430

      In Conversations Journal’s current volume, Fall/Winter 2014, there is an article that caught my attention on several levels. One is the role of the brain and a faith-based life. The article talks about the role of joy as evidence of faith flourishing. Second is the role of building relationships in effective teaching. Third the role of the brain in the emotion of joy. According to the article, joy cannot be willed. For centuries it was thought that people had one will and that was the source of all willfulness. Interestingly, joy is not sourced in the human will, rather in the love and attachment parts of the brain. Also joy is not permanent. It must be re-nurtured because it dissipated over time. Joy is not happiness which is dependent on external circumstances. It is developed from deep within. One way to keep joy fresh is when it appears to be dissipating, focus on the relationship and not the problem.

      This fits with Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind as you develop relationships with low SES students who are acting out. focus on the relationship and not the problem.

      I am fully aware that I have not been a very joyful person over most of my life. this article has refreshed joy in my life and it is wonderful!

      Imagine what it would be like in a school where joy is paramount!

      These are my thoughts. What are yours?

    • #26752
      Cid Schumpert

      I teach at a charter school that focuses on classical learning. Our curriculum is organized around history. Students study history in depth utilizing original documents and literature from the period. Our school is full of the joy of meaningful learning. Our students crave knowledge and truth which once obtained brings joy in its deepest form.

    • #27856
      Lisa Baker

      As a public school teacher in a Title 1 school, I wholeheartedly agree. I think an often overlooked topic is the happiness of the faculty. Teachers in my district have had very limited raises. Most struggle with large debt and the ability to make ends meet. The additional requirements of Common Core Standards, RtI-MTSS, and all the other well meaning programs the state is requiring makes it hard to be joyful at your job. I hear all the time at Faculty meetings and Professional Development trainings how we need to focus on the kids, improve test scores, etc. I think we need as a community focus on helping teachers to be happier. I know from my own experience, when my life is stable and I am less stressed, my classroom goes more smoothly. I think if we really want to see test scores improve, we need to focus just as much energy on improving the lives of EVERYONE. By providing everyone on the faculty support, everyone will truly be successful.

    • #27938

      Thanks for your post. I have been asking for someone to show me the research where an overworked, weary and unappreciated faculty changed a school for the better. On the way to church this morning I thought about we are encouraged by Eric to look in the mirror, instead of pointing the finger at others and blaming them for the state education is in. I have taken that to heart. Already I can reframe it as a clinical challenge to develop the brains of my students, especially the SPED kids I serve. As I prepared to preach on the Incarnation of God to us, I realized that we as teachers are the INCARNATION of LEARNING to our students. We have to model learning to a world of students who have been shortchanged by the media, lawmakers, and others. Well, I am not going to list any others, just making a commitment to being a vibrant learning in front of my students, sharing each little and big tidbit I learn with them, hopefully enriching their lives and stimulating their own love for learning.

    • #40660

      Another aspect of this as relating to teachers is the importance of doing meaningful things as part of personal joy. When teachers remember why they decided to teach in the first place…the hope of making students brains and lives better… they return to their own intrinsic value oe joy of teaching. I love asking my preservice teachers why they are pursuing teaching degrees. They are so full of passion…it is contagious!

    • #40661

      Another aspect of this as relating to teachers is the importance of doing meaningful things as part of personal joy. When teachers remember why they decided to teach in the first place…the hope of making students brains and lives better… they return to their own intrinsic value oe joy of teaching. I love asking my preservice teachers why they are pursuing teaching degrees. They are so full of passion…it is contagious!

    • #42232
      Karan Young, M.Ed.

      Joy is such a critical part of any child’s development. I try to impart that joy of learning with all the teachers in my school. Finding the joy in your work is a big part of what we teach our children.

    • #42285
      Ernest Izard, PhD

      As I have finished reading Bessel Van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body, I came across Richard C. Schwartz’s pioneering work on Internal Family Systems. His framework of the Self, Exiles, Managers, and Firefighters as more than metaphors for what goes on in the mind and brain in response to trauma, brings to light how joy is stolen from abused children and is so difficult to restore. The more teachers are aware of these intrapsychic interactions, the more they can help restore the joy. This begins by not labeling the child and realizing acting our=t behavior is a cry for help and a survival technique. The safer we make the educational setting, the more likely the traumatized child will be able to express the sensations, feelings, and beliefs that have been hijacked. That allows the SELF to emerge from being BLENDED with other parts of the psyche to take charge and reorganize the chaos of body and brain that is the result of trauma

      i know this is only a tease of what is in the book. For me it gives me HOPE and JOY for what can happen in students’ lives. More to come in the post on Van der Kolk’s book.

    • #43329

      Ernest, I am loving this thread. As Lisa mentioned, everyone in the educational system needs to feel valued and supported, especially the teachers. While I spend some of my consulting time working with children running therapeutic yoga groups in schools that are 100% poverty, a larger part of my time is supporting teachers. This involves modeling, reinforcing self-care and wellness strategies for teachers. A topic that draws much interest but not many are writing about this at a policy level. I am making some small contributions but I think we all know and have felt the impact personally and professionally when we don’t care for ourselves. It is not pretty. We suffer, our work suffers and it impacts those around us. If not us, then who? We are the folks that can model wellness (not perfection). Let’s challenge each other to dig deeper and implement daily practices that support our well-being. I do have some tools on my website to help us get started. It really is as simply as sitting still for 5 minutes and simply counting your inhales and exhales – simple, but not easy! I am also enjoying reading van der Kolk’s book. I loved it when he says on P.273 “Simply noticing what you feel fosters emotional regulation”, so true.

    • #43484
      Erik Smith

      Currently, Dr. Barbara Frederickson has taken the process of transforming our lives from so-so to joyous to another level through her work on Positivity. Eric’s Poverty workshops have highlighted her work by stressing the 3-to-1 ratio that makes the most impact upon rewiring our brains. Moreover, you can monitor your own positivity ratio by creating an account at I agree with Joanne’s post referencing the challenge to implement practices that support our well being. The teaching realities are corrosive, toxic, and biologically depleting and, most likely, will not change any time soon. As such, we need to build and reinforce our internal happiness shields in order to go forth and consistently inject a sense of joy, happiness, and positivity into our students. Inherently difficult, but critically vital to our survival.

    • #43488

      Eric, I just did the Positivity Ratio test, uho, even my usual positive self did’t fare so well today. I think it is helpful to have self-monitoring practices to “reinforce our internal happiness shields” like you mentioned (love that). Yoga too is a way to improve one’s present-moment-experience. Thanks for sharing this helpful resource.

    • #62761
      Iliana Aljure

      Ernest, I think JOY spreads all over the school’s environment. I believe that the best way of teaching joy to our children is being a model of Joy, and preparing inspiring classes where sparkles of joy can be seen everywhere: praising turns out to be joy, recognition turns out to be joy, building self-esteem fosters joy, humor enhances joy… So, we as teachers can find a way to “live it up” in our classes by consciously introducing activities and strategies that foster joy! I personally did a workshop on the importance of emotions and used the videoclip of Disney’s INSIDE OUT, as a way to show the 5 emotions that were described. People were fascinated by it and it surprised me that most adults had seen the movie! This year in our halloween, many of our girls were dressed as JOY, the character of the movie! She is inspiring and is the leader of all other emotions in the brain!
      Thanks for sharing!

    • #63004

      Thank you for sharing about joy. I came across the meaning of my name Rinnah, which means Joy (smile). I totally agree that joy is an emotion that you cannot just tell yourself: now I have joy!. It has to do with positive relationships, contentment, affection, gratitude with faith and hope. Most of the students from our schools come from a low SES. We are focusing on the SHARE model from Eric Jensen’s workshop on Poverty where HOPE is an important aspect of the total of the model. Where there is HOPE, despite the situation, joy may grow in the hearts.

    • #63006

      Is there a joy center in the brain? Who can help me on this?

    • #63042

      Dear Rinnah (Joy),

      I think you may find the work of Dr. Paul Eckman helpful. He has identified 6 (and then later more in an expanded version of his work) emotions that are common across cultures. His work was popularized by a TV series called “Lie to Me” (which I enjoy a lot).

      The 6 basic emotions are sadness, joy, fear, disgust, anger and surprise. Here is a link to his website:

      I also noticed that Dr. Eckman was a constant to the Disney/Pixar film that came out in June, Inside Out. Do watch this if you haven’t already.



    • #63044

      A colleague of mine, Dr. Andrea Hyde, Western Illinois University, was recently published in “Democracy & Education”:

      I think it is very important to consider how we are being in this moment in both our personal circumstances and our professional lives. This paper is a scholarly approach to mindful practices.

    • #63055

      Thank you, Joanne for the link and valuable information. ,
      Yes, we discussed the 6 basic emotions during training with Eric. I will study this area further, because a life without joy is a misery.We should definitely be, as educators the reflection of what we teach.

    • #63187

      According to my findings, the joy center of the brain is the same place in the brain where we feel and experience love.

    • #63226
      Dr. Margo Turner

      I found the animated movie that released this summer, Inside out, an interesting look at the hardwired emotions and brain functioning…if you saw the movie you know that Joy was the commander. I shared some connections of the movie and brain healthy choices with a group of middle school gt students this fall. They were very interested n how they could change their emotions, and their brains!

    • #65018
      Ernest Izard

      Search for Joy in the Classroom Learning Experience

      In my research to identify the unique components of joy in order to develop systems, strategies, and skills for developing joy in students learning and their live, I am coming up disappointed that many authors co-op the word joy, using it instead of where happiness is what they are really writing about.

      For example, in ASCD’s Engaging Minds in the Classroom: the Surprising Power of Joy, authors Michael F. Optiz and Michael P. Ford present a powerful description of motivation through engaging activities, supported by numerous lists and depictive illustrations and tables. At the same time, ever place they use the word joy, I can replace it with happiness without changing the meaning or tempo of their intention. Using enjoyment as a measure of joy misses the deeper meaning of joy.

      From a brain perspective joy emanates from the love and attachment part of the brain. Joy occurs within a relationship and joy dissipates. Joy must be replenished on an ongoing basis.

      I welcome learning from my colleagues what you have discovered in experiences and in research what is joy in a student’s being and how it can be fostered, strengthened, and renewed.

    • #65857

      Ernest and others,

      I am not sure how I’ve missed this strand over the last year. What a great conversation around joy and the hard-wired emotions. What you have written really resonates with me around the temporal connections of joy / happiness / circumstances / immediate context. Happiness is often driven by the immediate circumstances. In my classroom I can be very unhappy with the way that a student and I have responded to each other; however, I can be full of deep-rooted joy and gratefulness for having the opportunity to even engage students daily. Joy emanates from a depth of hope in tomorrow that happiness does not. Reflecting on teachers and their working conditions, as an administrator I try to keep a balance. I can’t just worry about students, I need to be thinking brain-health/emotional wellbeing of my faculty.

      With both students in poverty and with faculty members, it is all about relationships. Joy through even very unpleasant circumstances is strengthened by the relationships and bonds that we have and that we foster. Perseverance and hope are buttressed with strong relationships. I bought the Van Der Kolk book at your recommendation earlier this year, it proved to be a good read.

      Thanks everyone for great conversation and helping me think through the relationships.

    • #72542

      Thank you all for these responses and resources about JOY! This summer I was at Disneyworld during the parade and was standing near a beautiful four year old-ish friend when the princesses appeared in front of Tinkerbell’s castle. She was EXURBERANTLY jumping up and down, arms in the air, shrieking, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! There is …. OH THERE SHE IS!” and would insert the name of each princess, over and over as her colorful braids were flapping and she was spinning around and around. She was completely unaware of me or anyone else except those princesses. I enjoyed her JOY more than the parade and vowed to live more JOY-FULL, at work and home!
      To help teachers and students be more joyful, Response Classroom’ s Margaret Berry Wilson offers these practical steps (
      Smile more. I know it seems simplistic, but sometimes just forcing yourself to smile at and with children can make you relax and lighten the mood. It really works. (Of course, laughing helps, too.)
      Read your class some jokes or short poems. Many jokes or poems can be read in less than two minutes, and even if you’re under tremendous time pressure, that’s enough time for a quick joke or a funny or moving poem to bring smiles.
      Add some choice to your lessons. When students have the power to choose which book to read, what topic to study, or even which of two worksheets to complete, they are more engaged and motivated. They feel more joy.
      Play a game. Playing a noncompetitive, fun game is a great way to build community and a sense of joy and playfulness among your students. Games can build social skills, provide quick reviews of academic content, or be a mix of both.
      Go outside a little more . . . with your class. As the weather gets warmer, flowers bloom, birds return, and the sky is bluer, spending even just a little time outside will lighten your mood and that of your students. Take a quick walk outside, play a game, or find a way to do some observation of nature or science.
      Do something kind for your students or a colleague. Write students quick notes about something positive you’ve noticed. Or, write a card, note or email to a colleague just to compliment that person on some aspect of his or her teaching.

    • #72695
      Ernest Izard

      Colleagues: I have taken the time to re-read your contributions to the strand on joy that I had a hand in initiating almost three years ago. I remain grateful for the affirmations as well as what you have taught me through your own journeys and research. I remain determined that happiness is not joy, not even biologically. Given a choice, I would focus my attention on instilling an atmosphere conducive to experiencing joy and developing it in that person’s life. I am just as determined to separate optimism from hope. No I am not quoting the sources from my doctoral program several years ago in hope nor the ongoing research into joy done while developing a trauma informed educator certification program. I am saying that I have tested hope and joy in the most difficult of crucibles–saying good-bye to the love and joy of my life who for over 42 years kept me hoping. I do not declare to be mature or wise. I was told years ago that the mark of a mature person was to hold two completely opposite things in tension. Devastating grief and tremendous joy–I am working at it.

    • #72723
      Iliana Aljure

      Ernest, Oriana Fallaci, a famous writer, says that only a person that has known deep sorrow and that has cried a lot, is able to laugh loudly, openly and contagiously, engaging others to feel that sense of joy… I hope that your devastating grief and your tremendous joy, come hand in hand, to make your life at ease again… Hope joy stays with you, no matter how hard life seems right now…

    • #81497

      Ever since I first wrote on joy and had a personal taste of it in my life, I have been on a journey to learn as much as I can about joy. I have run into some difficulties as I have discovered disparate views on whether joy is an emotion or a cognitive state of mind (that, in spite of Pixar’s movie Inside Out and the numerous citations that joy is one of the six hard-wired emotions in the brain.

      I have also been troubled in the journey by the thoughtless and slippery interchangeableness even scientists use when talking about joy. In one paragraph joy might be used, then happiness, without explanation, and then slide into using the amorphous umbrella term called pleasure. This goes against the grain of brain research scans that show happiness and joy show up in different parts of the brain when experienced (or maybe joy shows up in multiple parts of the brain and gets labeled “happiness.”

      My latest disappointment comes at the hands of a book titled “Joy, Guilt, Anger, and Love: What Neuroscience Can–and Cannot Tell Us About How We Feel. the author is Giovanni Franzetto, who has a PhD from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany.

      My best takeaway from this also slippery writer is that he includes research that a truthful smile reveals joys. A doctor in France did studies and noticed when a smile is sincerely joyous, The zygomaticus major muscle contracts the muscle that runs from the cheekbones down to the corner of the lips. But the smile created by that contraction was not enough to reveal a genuine smile. It took the muscle around the eyes, the orbicularis oculi, to also contract to reveal a truthful smile (could be argued a truthful smile is not necessarily congruent with joy). So you can have a polite smile that is reflected by voluntarily thinning and extending the lips into a forced smile. A genuine smile is revealed by the eyes. This complete smile is named after the doctor who did the research using electrodes that measured galvanic responses on the skin of the face and jokes. This smile is called the Duchenne smile.

      From there Frazetto tries to link joy with laughter while at the same time making room for cynical, malevolent, and deriding, or accompany a violent act that could include murder. Frazetto then cites the work of researcher psychologist Robert Provine. Provine described distinct vocalization structure. At the end of the paragraph there is no link to joy and Frazetto moves on to other things. While laughter might put a smile on your face, it might not put an accompanying twinkle in your eye.

      From there Frazetto recites research in monkeys and bees and calls bees’ love for quality nectar appreciative learning. For me, that still doesn’t link to joy. A good mood is not a shoe in for joy.

      To make matters worse, Frazetto recites research on ecstatic experience, especially those induced by drugs. In his words opiods calm and give blissful sensations. Of course what is next is the abundant release of opiods during sex. There may be a title to a book on sex with joy in its title, but that does not make a physiological connection to the emotion known as joy. Then comes music where some works give what are called chills. I’m not satisfied.

      If I am not boring you, Frazetto then moves to philosophers and the verbage returns to happiness and hedonism, not joy. Just as quickly he makes the assertion that “Joyful moments add up and build a happier life.”

      Then Frazetto appears to get serious by reporting research on vagal nerve tone. He reported that participants in the studies who had a high vagal tone reported positive emotions such as joy, love, gratitude, or hope. Which one is it, Giovanni? Joy not differentiated.

      Frazetto concludes with unconnected comments about joy from an anecdotal experience he had writing poetry. “Joy gives us better eyes.” “Joy nails down fear.” Joy can cultivate itself, if we let it.

      Quoting James Baldwin who used the word sensual to describe the life force, this sensuality has the ability to own your own actions and fill them with meaning and value. Finally, “if you practice joy and let it (amazing ambiguity!) happen to you, courage will emerge.

      I’ve made my case. Disappointed, I move on in my search to find a fruitful oasis of insight into joy for my journey that lies ahead. to be continued.

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