I Was Depressed & Anxious Until I Started Doing These 4 Things

Photo: Javier Díez

A few years back, I faced a devastating setback in my career that left me riddled with anxiety and overcome with depression. My self-esteem hit an all-time low when the business I had built went under.

As I sunk to rock bottom, my friend proposed a crazy idea. She suggested that if I made joy my top priority for one month, my entire life would turn around. At that point, joy seemed like a distant dream, but with no job, no plan, and no other ideas, I decided to give it a try.

The difference between joy and happiness.

You’ve maybe never thought about it before, but there is a distinct difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a cognitive experience based in the brain’s cortex. It’s a state of mind, which comes and goes easily. Happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the brain’s fight-or-flight response—it feels exciting and stimulating to the body.

Joy, on the other hand, is a subconscious experience, an emotion based in the brain’s limbic system. Joy activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls rest and relaxation—it feels calming and soothing to the body. Joy affects the entire body, down to the DNA, and can lower inflammation and increase immunity. Since the experience of joy has such a strong physical component, there are proven things you can do to help create it—almost like a formula.

My formula for joy.

For 30 days, I conducted an experiment in which I was the subject. I dedicated my daily actions for one month to the singular pursuit of joy by calling on the science behind hormones, mindfulness, and manifestation, synthesizing my findings into a calculated plan. I went after joy from all angles—from the scientific to the spiritual and everything in between. Here are my top four practices from the month of radical transformation:

  1. Gratitude: Frequent appreciation increases dopamine and soothes the amygdala (fear sensor) in the brain.
  2. Simple pleasures: Engaging in pleasant actions that stimulate all five senses brings attention to the body and away from stressful thoughts.
  3. Mindfulness: Bringing attention to the present moment can release stress and increase calm.
  4. Movement: Adopting a more active lifestyle is a proven way to increase the brain chemicals associated with well-being.

My "joy plan" (which eventually led me to write a book on joy; go figure) required simple steps every day and was not a quick fix. In order to make these small shifts effective long-term, they must become a lifestyle. Repetition is the key to forming new habits of thought in the brain, which then become new feelings, new actions, and eventually a new experience of life. Thirty days is just long enough to form new habits and put this lifestyle into place.

After spending a month with the sole purpose of creating joy in my life, I discovered that finding joy in my current state of affairs could change the actual circumstances in my life. I found joy despite my external conditions, and then those conditions morphed to match my joy.

My life changed in wonderful ways I never could have imagined. I’m now a mindfulness teacher for elementary school students. I make a living as a writer, doing work that I love from anywhere in the world.

Was this magic? A miracle? It could appear that way, but I believe it was simply science.

By intentionally practicing thinking new thoughts, which lead to new behaviors, we create new patterns in our brains, which ultimately translate into a new experience of life. Quantum physics has proved that, at the subatomic level, all matter is made of energy, and our thoughts influence the behavior of that energy. Essentially, our thoughts shift subatomic particles and create our physical world.

This is not just philosophy; this is physics. And I have tested this principle and seen the proof in my own life. By taking small steps to change my very negative state of mind, I created a radical shift in my emotional experience and—very quickly—a significant change in my reality.

You don’t have to set aside a whole month for the sole purpose of joy in order to create a Joy Plan in your life. It may sound like a crazy idea, but often crazy ideas are the ones you should listen to.

Another key to happiness is something that you've been taught NOT to do. Intrigued? Check out what it is here.

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