This essay was written as part of an empowerment campaign, “Wear Yourself In,” led by eco-luxe skin care company Kari Gran. In response to the beauty industry pushing an impossible idea of flawless youth for years, the campaign encourages women to be kind to themselves, and their skin, as they reflect on beauty, aging, wisdom and self-acceptance.
Kaia is the author of the new book, The Joy Plan (Sourcebooks, July 2017). She teaches Mindfulness to elementary school students in Santa Cruz, California and is a blogger for mindbodygreen and other sites.
Last year, we asked author Kaia Roman to share her thoughts on aging gracefully as part of our “Wear Yourself In” campaign. Check out her essay, “Joy is the Best Makeup,” here.
Since then, Kaia’s new book, The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness, came out to rave reviews with Publisher’s Weekly calling it “an energized and informative plan for transforming your life.”
We caught up with Kaia during her book tour to find out more about her story.
You went through some big setbacks before you finally realized you could change your life by pursuing a path of joy. Tell us a little bit about what you were feeling and what was the final push to set you into action.
A few years ago, my business crashed and my self-esteem hit an all-time low. Although there are far worse fates than the failure of a business, it felt like the last straw in a long string of failures in my life that all pointed to my inability to do anything right. As I sunk into depression, my friend Niko suggested that if I focused on making joy my top priority for one month, my entire life would turn around. With no job, no plan, and no other ideas, I decided to give it a try.
Joy seemed like a distant dream, but I knew I needed to put my ingrained habits of stress and anxiety behind me and find a new way to live. So for 30 days, I dove into a plan dedicated to the singular pursuit of joy in hopes my life would somehow change. The results were astonishing—and lasted much longer than my initial month-long project.
It can be daunting to pursue something like re-discovering happiness, which feels ambiguous. What was your first step?
First, I think it’s helpful to understand the difference between happiness and joy. We don’t usually think about it—but there is a distinct difference. Happiness is a cognitive experience based in the brain’s cortex. It’s a state of mind, like a thought, which comes and goes easily. Happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the brain’s fight or flight response—it feels exciting and stimulating to the body.
Whereas joy 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. We experience joy without thinking about it, and we can train our brains to feel it often.
When I dedicated 30 days to joy, the first thing I did was actually notice when I felt joy. It wasn’t that often! So I needed to create the conditions for joy in my life as well as in my brain. For me, giving up on complaining, finding a way to meditate that’s actually more calming than it is stressful, and turning the mental dial from worry to gratitude were the major keys to my “joy plan.”
What would you say to women who are afraid to take that first step in a different direction, which could mean big changes for their lives and their loved ones?
Thanks to the process of neuroplasticity, our brains develop neural pathways—like well-worn highways they travel on regularly because they’re familiar. By choosing positive thoughts, words, and actions at every opportunity (focusing on solutions rather than problems), you’re training your brain to form the neural pathways for optimism, which is associated with greater joy. Joy is an emotion that can be fostered, just like any other habit.
Although habits aren’t always easy to change, it is totally possible to create the conditions for joy in your brain that then turn into the conditions for joy in your life. It took me 30 days to get the process rolling, but it’s really a lifelong practice. Luckily, once you know how to do it, it’s pretty simple to keep it up. I encourage you to give it a try. Because this stuff really works!