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Just a Spoonful of Joy

May seem too good to be true, but a daily dose of joy can impact on your gut health (#guthealth).

Yesterday, I listened to Ingrid Fetell Lee’s TED Talk about Joy – if you haven’t listened yet, it’s worth the 13 minutes and 39 seconds of your time. She describes how she began investigating joy, and how she realized that some things are universally able to provide this momentary, positive emotion. In her search to determine the source and meaning of joy, she argues that joy is often trivialized or under-appreciated:

“As a culture, we are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. And yet, in the process, we kind of overlook joy.”

I don’t think we realize how much we ignore the benefits of joy. As part of our life’s mission, we aim to achieve happiness – in fact, the Declaration of Independence gives this as an example of an unalienable right – but our efforts toward happiness might also be part of our problem. We work ourselves to the bone, sometimes forgoing our physical and emotional health, to achieve proverbial happiness. Yet, how many of us have brushed aside a child’s joyful discovery of a dandelion because we were running late for an appointment? Or felt too silly to ask for sprinkles on an ice cream cone. We sacrifice these moments of joy, and write them off as less important than they may be.

Yet, as Lee points out, these simple pleasures often help us achieve the fleeting feeling of positivity as “hidden moments of joy in plain sight.” Consider, instead, how happy we might feel if we enjoyed a multitude of these types of joyful experiences.

But why is joy important to our overall gut health? As it turns out, experiencing joy positively affects the body’s ability to function. A study published by Bethany Kok et al in Psychological Science drew parallels between experiencing positive emotions, like joy, and vagal tone. Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Once activated, the vagus nerves affect functions of the heart and smooth muscles and glands in your digestive tract. Vagal tone is a fundamental part of your nervous system’s “rest and digest” response (the opposite of the well-known “fight or flight” response) and it directly correlates to your body’s ability to respond to stimuli from the esophagus, respiratory tract, and abdominal organs. Basically, the greater the vagal tone, the better your body’s response to these stimuli.

We already know that stress negatively impacts the body. In fact, stress is associated with reduced function of the vagal nerve, which we just mentioned controls digestion and gut function, and is correlated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other gastrointestinal problems.

Quite reasonably, studies have repeatedly demonstrated the inverse relationship between stress and feelings of happiness, and logically, we can all agree that it’s pretty hard to feel stress while you’re experiencing true joy.

Based on these data, joy seems to provide the momentary pleasure and stress reduction your body craves to function properly. Joy also allows you to stay mindful and in the moment, and brings a balancing quality to our lives. Obviously, poor gut health can be triggered by numerous things, most especially unhealthy eating habits. Yet, we may not be fully appreciating how a joyful experience can help trigger a ripple of positive benefits in the body. As one of the key components of primary food (the parts of life that “feed” you off your plate), experiencing joy is key to overall wellbeing.

After listening to Lee’s talk, I realized that appreciation for the littler things in life might actually be a key component in happiness and health. In addition to focusing on healthy dietary habits, joy may be able to boost your gut health by helping you improve vagal tone and reduce stress. I can’t think of a more fun way to improve my well-being – put on your rose-colored glasses, stop and smell the roses, and find the little things that truly bring you joy.

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