Cultivating a Heart of Joy (No Matter What Stage of Life You’re In)

Empty Nest Blessed by Suzy Mighell
woman wearing green BU JOY tee and white jeans standng in a front yard

This post was excerpted from a webinar I did for a Baylor Alumni group on May 5, 2021. You may watch the video of my webinar below and view additional, written content in the blog post below.

When was the last time you felt complete and total joy? Like, seriously, 100% joy? If you’re honest, it may be difficult to really think of the last time you felt pure, unadulterated joy.

For me, it was when the Baylor Men’s Basketball Team won the NCAA National Championship! Bob and I were in our PJs (with Baylor sweatshirts on top, of course) in front of the TV, dancing and jumping around like nobody’s business. I turned to Bob and said, “At this moment, I feel total, pure joy.”

But did I really? Was that really joy? Or was it just happiness? We all want more joy! Can you cultivate a joyful heart? If so, how? Today, I’m running down what joy is, sharing ten practical tips to up your joy factor, telling you how to avoid the joy stealers in life, and how to find joy even in the most devastating circumstances.

Let’s start by breaking joy down and figuring out what it is, and what it isn’t.

woman wearing green BU JOY tee and white jeans standng in a front yard

What is Joy?

Joy is not the same thing as happiness. Happiness is an emotion. Emotions are our natural reactions to life events, circumstances, and situations in our lives. While we may love the high we get from happiness, true joy is steady and dependable. 

C.S.Lewis once said, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Happiness is great. And sometimes it can even be a gateway to true joy. But true joy goes wayyyy deeper than happiness. It’s so much better. It’s that holiday at the sea.

True joy is only from the Lord. You can’t have a heart of joy if you don’t know the Lord because true joy stems from heartfelt gratitude for God’s love, mercy, and grace. Joy is always, always intertwined with gratitude.

woman wearing green BU JOY tee and white jeans standng in a front yard

What Does the Bible Say About Joy?

Years ago, I decided to do a word study of the word “joy” in the Bible. It took a long time because I literally looked up every single reference to joy in scripture and wrote down what the Bible said about it. I almost filled up an entire notebook!

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing.

Proverbs 10:28 (NIV)

We are only righteous because, in the most amazing and undeserved exchange in history, Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself when he died on the cross for us and clothed us with His righteousness in exchange. That’s the root of our joy. Joy is always intertwined with gratitude.

In fact, in Hebrews 12:2b, the Bible tells us that Christ endured the cross and the scorning it brought because of the joy set before him in sitting at the right hand of his Father’s throne.

…For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:2 (NIV)

Some people say that happiness is circumstantial, but joy is not. I don’t necessarily agree! I’ll tell you why: It’s also clear in scripture that sometimes joy is tied to life events.

But maybe not in the way you think.

As Christians, we don’t just glean joy from a circumstance, life event, or situation in and of itself. Rather, we glean joy from a circumstance, life event, or situation because we know the One who made things happen.

For example, anyone can appreciate and enjoy the beauty of a sunset, the grandeur of the mountains, or the crashing waves on a beach. But as Christians, we’re the ones who can truly glean joy from those things. Why? Because we know the One who made them happen. He’s our Father, our friend, and our Savior.

Scripture makes it clear that our joy is tied to what God is doing in our lives!

The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

Psalm 126:3

For example, in Isaiah 9:3, we see joy tied to the Lord enlarging the land by giving them victory in battle.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest.

Isaiah 9:3 (NIV)

Do you see it? Over and over again in scripture we see joy tied to something God did for His people! In 2 John 1:12, we see that John anticipates the joy of being face to face with his friends. (That’s something we can all relate to right now!)

Though I have many things to write to you, I do not want to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made complete.

2 John 1:12 (NIV)

In all of these examples, we see that joy is intertwined with gratitude. Grateful people are joyful people. Gratitude for what Christ did for us on the cross. Gratitude for the fact that he did it when we didn’t deserve it. Gratitude for what he continues to do in our lives.

The secret to cultivating a heart of joy? It’s gratitude.

How Can You Cultivate a Heart of Joy?

Because joy, and by default gratitude, are muscles that get stronger with use, you’re going to have to be intentional about pursuing joy, practicing joy, and cultivating a heart of joy.

So what does it look like on a practical level to cultivate a heart of joy?

First of all—since you can’t know how to get somewhere without knowing where you’re going—if you’re serious about wanting more joy in your life, I would highly recommend that you do a word study of the word  “joy” in the Bible as I did. Knowing and understanding what God says about joy is really the key to cultivating it.

Next, intentionally, and actively, pursue it and practice it, always intertwining it with gratitude.

Baylor CHAMPS Tee | White Ankle Jeans | Gucci-Dupe Sandals (Use Promo Code ENB15 for 15% off) | Raffia Earrings (Screw-On Back)

10 Practical Tips For Cultivating a Heart of Joy

1. Make an Effort to Laugh More (Especially at Yourself.)

joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.

Proverbs 17:22 (NASB)

Multiple studies, including one out of UC Irvine, have shown that laughter reduces stress hormone secretion and helps the immune system defend itself against viruses, bacteria, cancer, and heart disease. Simply put: Laughter is good medicine. It’s important not to take ourselves too seriously and to laugh at ourselves whenever possible! 😂

One time, I was writing a quick email to someone in the Baylor Development office about a donation Bob and I were giving. In fact, I wrote the email so quickly that instead of signing our names Suzy & Bob, I wrote Suxy & Bib. And then I hit send. I was mortified. And then I started laughing. And then I told the story to anyone who would listen! 🤣

2. Plan Something to Look Forward To

In that same study out of UC Irvine, researchers found that the mere anticipation of laughing helped decrease the stress markers in participants. They even coined what they found the “Biology of Hope.”

They took a group of men, measured their stress signs, and told them that they would be watching a humorous video in three days. The men’s stress markers started dropping immediately.

Two days before the viewing, depression was down 51%, anger 19%, fatigue 15%, and tension 9%. Right after the viewing, depression, and anger were both down 98%, fatigue 87%, and tension 61%.

Some of the tried and true advice I always give to new empty nesters? Plan a trip within a week or two of your last child leaving. It will give you something to look forward to and give you a chance to press the reset button on your life in a relaxed, fun setting.

It’s true for anyone, in any stage of life! Bob and I always try to have something fun to look forward to at all times, whether it’s a date night or a weekend getaway.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13 (NIV)

3. Sprinkle Some Positivity Into Your Daily Life

Do little things like changing your passwords to something joyful and grateful, like gratefulgal21 or ichoosejoy82. Studies have found that small acts of affirmation actually activate the reward centers in our brains.

4. Figure Out What Makes You “Happy”

Happiness, when intertwined with gratitude, can be a gateway to joy. Really take the time to figure out what makes you happy. It’s okay if it’s weird! Like, I really love doing laundry. Two weeks ago, our old washing machine finally gave out, and I got a new washer. I am so grateful for that washing machine! Gratitude is always intertwined with joy.

5. Create a Positivity Playlist

Music releases a chemical in your brain called dopamine, which improves your mood and reduces your anxiety. It can also help produce the stress-reducing hormone cortisol, so it induces pleasure, positivity, and motivation.

According to psychologists, the most emotionally invigorating tunes have positive lyrics and a tempo of about 150 beats per minute. Look for an upbeat playlist on Spotify or compile a list of 10-20 songs to throw on when you need a little motivation.

6. Make an Effort to Smile More

Studies have proven that there’s a link between facial expression and mood. When you smile, your brain releases neuropeptides, which combat stress. Other natural anti-depressant neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are activated too. By making yourself smile, you’re actually activating an area in the brain that’s switched on when you’re joyful.

7. Celebrate (Everything)!

Be sure you stop and celebrate with gratitude the joyful events in life—big or small. Don’t just go on to the next thing.

8. Worship

True worship stems from a heart of joy. Worship is acknowledging who God is and who we are, and then it’s acknowledging that only He could bridge the divide between us. Gratitude is always intertwined with joy, which, in turn, is always intertwined with worship.

  • Get yourself to a worship service on Sundays.
  • Listen to worship music.
  • Make sure that worship is a part of your prayer life. Worship isn’t thanking God for what He’s done for you—that’s thankfulness—rather, it’s praising Him for who He is. (Another great Bible study: look up all of the names for God in scripture. Then use those to praise and worship Him.)

9. Guard Your Heart and Your Mind

If we polled 5 people who know your heart and who really know you well, would they call you a positive person or a negative person? Would they say you have a heart of joy?

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)

Want to know if you have a heart of joy? Scripture provides us with a failproof test: What’s coming out of your mouth?

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Luke 6:45 (NIV)

And Ephesians 4:29 tells us what those words should be:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ephesians 4:29 (NIV)

So, our words should be:

  1. Positive, inspiring, and encouraging.
  2. Appropriate to the moment, the person, and the context of the situation.
  3. Beneficial, helpful, and a blessing.

10. Actively Practice the Discipline of Gratitude

Grateful people are joyful people.

If you want to cultivate a heart of joy, write down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Make them specific and unique to that day to illuminate pockets of joy hidden throughout your day. Like, “my adult kid reached out to me to ask for advice.” Avoid things that are repetitive or too general, like, “I’m grateful for my family” or “I’m grateful for the beautiful weather.” Be specific!

gratitude to do list from joy creative shop

I have a gratitude to-do list pad that I use every evening when I make my to-do list for the next day. It’s from Joy Creative Shop, one of my favorite small businesses. Joy Creative Shop has several sweet gratitude tools that can help you as you work to cultivate a heart of joy. You can take 10% off anything at Joy Creative Shop with the code ENB10. Here are a few of my favorites.

Gratitude To-Do List pad | Gratitude is the Best Attitude Notebook | Say A Little Prayer Notebook

Are You Letting Joy Stealers Into Your Life?

Beware of joy stealers! They could be other people, or you could actually be stealing your own joy!

1. Are You Your Own Joy Stealer?

It’s hard to have a heart of joy when you’re looking horizontally and not vertically! When you look at other people, either in real life or on social media, do you assume that their lives are perfect? Trust me. They’re not! Everybody has something (and probably lots of somethings).

This happens to me all the time because people that follow me on Instagram or Facebook think they know me. The truth is, they don’t! Not really. I strive to be as authentic as possible, but my life isn’t perfect!

I do have a happy marriage, kids that are following the Lord, and a great career that started after my kids left the nest. But I struggle with work/life balance. I have health issues that affect my life every single day. I also have some difficult relationships in my life. I haven’t hidden those things, and I’ve talked about the ones that wouldn’t invade someone else’s privacy. Those things aren’t visible from the outside. Remember that everybody has something, whether you can see it or not.

If you want to cultivate a heart of joy, call out the lies you may be telling yourself and put them to death. Scripture is clear about where lies come from: Satan is the father of lies.

He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies.

John 8:44 (NASB)

2. Look Out For Negative People Who Want to Steal Your Joy

I love the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Are you giving consent to someone? Please don’t do it! Don’t let anyone steal your joy.

People’s unkind and negative reactions to you are usually more about them than about you! Hurting people are the ones who need to hurt others. Some people will always look for what they perceive as the negative in anything you do or say, despite your true meaning or intent.

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

Matthew 5:44 (NASB)

They could be jealous of who they (think) you are, or they might feel that by putting you down, they will feel better about themselves. Remember, just as I said, they don’t know everything about you. They’re hurting. They need your prayers.

How Can You Find Joy in a Devastating Situation?

For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for life; Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Psalm 30:5 (NKJV)

Even when we’re in a time of sorrow, joy comes in the morning. It is right around the corner. When you feel like you’ll never have joy again, those words should bring you comfort and hope.

1. Know that Joy Can Co-exist With Other Feelings, Emotions, and Thoughts

Seeing the joy in a devastating situation doesn’t negate the sadness we feel. A year ago, my daughter-in-law, Sarah’s best friend died suddenly and unexpectedly. As Sarah grieved, she said she realized that her sadness lived side-by-side with the joy that her best friend was in heaven and she would see her again one day. You can hold them both together, and that was somewhat of a revelation to her. It gave her such gratitude for the Lord’s promise of heaven and the hope that it brings in a time of grief. (BTW, do you see it? There’s gratitude again! Joy is always intertwined with gratitude.)

Scientists have found that genuinely joyful people are what they call “emodiverse,” meaning they can manage all different emotions and feelings at once. The reason? Their feelings go deeper.

2. Know That We’re Commanded to Have Joy (and Gratitude)

Yep! In a seemingly odd turn of events in Scripture, we are actually commanded to have a heart of joy and give thanks in trials and difficulties. Wait! What?

Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials.

James 1:2 (NASB)

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Joy is always intertwined with gratitude.

3. Know That You Need to Actively Look For the Joy

When you are in a devastating, life-shattering situation, look for the kindness and mercy of God. He is walking with you in your difficult situation, and He will demonstrate that to you. Maybe he will change your circumstances. Maybe he will use His people to pour out His grace in your life.

If any of you have ever been in a life-altering, devastating situation, you know what I’m talking about here. To be the recipient of the Body of Christ wrapping their arms around you and lifting you up is a privilege that makes an indelible mark. When we were in a situation like that, I told my husband, “I would never wish our situation on another person, but I do wish everyone could be the recipient of the outpouring of grace that we’ve received from the Body of Christ during this time.”

That outpouring was a beautiful, sacred infusion of joy in the midst of devastation. And as always, there was gratitude for it. Because gratitude is always, always intertwined with joy.

woman wearing green BU JOY tee and white jeans standng in a front yard

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So when the Baylor men’s basketball team won the National Championship, and I turned to my husband and told him I felt pure joy. Did I really? Yes. Because I know the One they play for. Head Coach Scott Drew has been open about the fact that he cultivates a culture of joy in his program. He encourages a humble, consider-others-more-important-than-yourself mindset in his players.

My joy was intertwined with gratitude for those young men, respect for their hard work, and their desire to honor, glorify, and point to the Father in their play. We know their hearts, and we know the One they play for.

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Suzy Mighell

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Suzy,

    I’m so grateful for this post! My word for the year is “joy” and in January I thought to do the Bible search on joy – and then I promptly forgot. This is a wonderful reminder for me. I’m starting tonight 🙂

    Your thoughts on joy are wonderful!

    1. Kay,

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I am so excited that you’re going to restart that word study on joy! It’s a life-changer, for sure! I’m so happy you enjoyed the post!

      xoxo
      Suzy

  2. Hello from Atlanta!!

    Thank you Suzy for the “Joy” talk today! You are an incredible inspiration and example of living a joyful thru both the good and tough times!

    Very grateful for you and your messages which bring me little burst of joys.

    Warm regards,
    ~Renee

    1. Aw, Renee,

      Thank you! I had such fun doing it and long for the day when I can maybe be with y’all in person! It will bring joy to my heart, for sure!

      I’m so happy you enjoyed our time this morning and thanks for hopping over here too! Hugs to you!

      xoxo
      Suzy

  3. Wonderful post. I am saving this to read again and study on it more. Thanks so much!

    1. Linda,

      I’m so glad it was a blessing to you. How sweet of you to take the time to let me know!

      Know that you can use the icons at the bottom of the post to share it to social media, email it to a friend, or print it off for yourself!

      xoxo
      Suzy

  4. In total agreement with you. Joy and gratitude go together. Happiness is a choice and you make it every day. Joy is from the heart and soul. Faith brings it out and gratitude seals it.
    I feel so much joy when I go to sleep in peace knowing that I have done my best following the Lord’s commandments and Jesus Christ teachings.

    1. Kattia,

      Thank you so much, my sweet friend! I miss you and can’t wait to see you again! You were so sweet to read this and leave me a note of encouragement!

      xoxo
      Suzy

  5. Suzy,
    I love all the meanings of JOY and how we can seek them out in different settings. Seeking the LORD in all situations is they only way to experience JOY.
    I love your BAYLOR attire and words of support! I graduated from BU in 1986 and our son is about to graduate this August! Talk about JOY!!!!
    Press on with spreading JOY!

    1. Lesa,

      Thank you! I graduated in 1987! What fun! Congratulations on your August graduate. I love the legacy aspect of Baylor, and have two sons who graduated from Baylor as well.

      Thank you for your kind words about this article. Keep spreading joy, my friend!

      xoxo
      Suzy

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