How Joy Can Help Us Tackle Burnout

How Joy Can Help Us Tackle Burnout

Getty/Nuthawut Somsuk

Burnout can take a toll on your mental and physical health. Explore how the simple practice of cultivating joy can help turn burnout around.

Burnout has become a bit of a buzzword in the last few years, and there is good reason for that—research shows that more of us are experiencing it than ever before. And it’s no surprise, as the last few years have thrown us so many challenges, and life feels laced with uncertainty right now.

What is Burnout?

Defined as a state of physical and mental exhaustion brought on by excessive and prolonged periods of unmanaged stress, burnout can present in a few different ways. The World Health Organization describe three distinct symptoms: depleted energy and exhaustion (always feeling tired, no matter how much rest you get), feelings of negativity and cynicism (struggling to find the silver linings, or feeling like nothing you do will make a difference), and reduced performance (struggling to achieve at the same level as you might have done in the past).

What Does Joy Have to Do With Burnout?

When it comes to tackling burnout, there are a few popular strategies that come to mind: reducing the demands on our energy, taking time off to heal and restore, and seeking professional help. All of these strategies can be incredibly helpful, but there might be something else you haven’t considered yet: prioritizing joy.

Research shows that experiencing joy or other positive emotions can help to protect us from or recover from burnout. This is because experiencing positive emotions can help us to build resilience and other qualities that help us to better manage stress. This is best understood using a theory called the broaden-and-build theory, which is often used as a basis for positive psychology.

According to prominent social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, while negative emotions can prompt us to employ narrow, survival-oriented behaviors (such as engaging the fight/flight/freeze response), positive thoughts and emotions broaden our awareness and encourage new thoughts and actions.

Her broaden-and-build theory explains how when we experience positive emotions such as joy, we broaden our thinking and improve our cognitive functioning, allowing us to draw on a wide range of possible solutions and behaviors, therefore building a whole host of mental resources (including resilience) that help us to live enhanced, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. And what’s great is that we experience this as a positive upwards spiral, meaning the more we experience those positive emotions, the greater the benefits.

How Can We Prioritize More Joy?

Now that we know that joy can help us to tackle our burnout, how do we prioritize more of it, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed or exhausted? Here are a few tips that can help.

  • Practice gratitude. Research shows that one of the biggest predictors of joy is gratitude; feeling thankful for what we have in our lives can often be the quickest route to experiencing joy and other positive emotions. A regular gratitude practice also has a whole host of other benefits, including improved health, more connected relationships, and a better night’s sleep. You may choose to write a list of the things you’re grateful for, or simply try to express your thanks more often in your day to day life.

  • Connect with others. Alongside gratitude, the other biggest predictor of joy in our lives is the connections we have with others. Research shows that having strong connections is more important for our health and happiness than anything else, and the opposite is also true: experiencing loneliness and isolation is thought to be as detrimental for our health as smoking 20 cigarettes a day. The good news is that our relationships don’t have to be perfect. We can bicker and disagree with our loved ones, so long as deep down we know that we can trust them. And small moments of connection—saying hello to the postman or having a chat with your barista, for example—can also boost our happiness and wellbeing.

  • Find meaning. Having a sense of meaning and purpose is an important part of living a joyful life, and studies suggest that it can also help to boost our resilience, thus helping us to recover from or avoid burnout. This doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and do something that feels more worthy, but it does mean that you can experience some brilliant benefits by thinking about what adds a sense of meaning and purpose to your life. What is most important to you? What are you passionate about? And how can you give more of your time and energy to these things?

  • Give positive journaling a go. Studies have shown that writing about our feelings can help us to cope better with stress, but writing about the positive parts of our life can have even more benefits, including helping us to feel more optimistic and boosting our physical and mental wellbeing. If you’re wondering where to get started, simply try to write about what is already good. That might include reflecting on your strengths, exploring what you’re looking forward to, or keeping a record of your favorite memories.

Adapted from Choose Joy by Sophie Cliff, Blue Star Press, RRP $19.95, available online and from all good bookshops.

How Joy Can Help Us Tackle Burnout

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