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5 Ways to Add Joy to Your Dissertation Path | Issue 295

Summary: Five ways to make joy your secret dissertation weapon.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes that can create a positive upward spiral for your new year.


By Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC

Editor's Note: When Southwest cancelled my flight home from Santa Fe after Christmas, I was in the midst of revising this issue-- with ample opportunity for "experiential appreciation" and cultivating joy. After three days of savoring extended delights of green chili burritos, stunning sunsets, snowy peaks, and just hanging out with kinfolk, I can say that these practices work!


Has your dissertation journey become an endless slog? 

Are you missing out on a sense of joy as you attempt to crank out chapter after chapter?

What if joy could prove to be your secret weapon to finishing? 


"Joy may be hard to define, but through the ages sages have contended that we know it when we experience it, and we know it when we lose it," says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., in a special issue on joy of the Journal of Positive Psychology. Unlike its emotional cousin happiness, joy has received little attention from research until now. 


Feeling joy turns out to be strongly associated with subjective well-being and flourishing, asserts Philip Watkins, Ph.D., a psychologist who studies joy, gratitude and happiness at Eastern Washington University. Joy, he explains, is a distinctive positive emotion that occurs when we experience a connection with something or someone that matters to us. Watkins and his colleagues have found that gratitude and joy combine to create a positive upward spiral that enhances well-being. 

We tend to reserve feelings of joy for sporadic major events with major meaning, e.g., holidays, birthdays, and graduations. Think Joy with a capital J. You've probably imagined the joy and meaning of finally getting that doctoral degree more than once—and rightfully so. 

"We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy."

~ Joseph Campbell Tweet this

Little Things Mean a Lot 

However, additional emerging research reveals that small delights also contribute to a sense of meaning and well-being. Think joy with a little j. 

When we take time to detect and absorb life's beauty, we are engaging in what researchers Joshua Hicks, Ph.D., and Frank Martela, Ph.D. refer to as experiential appreciation. Doing so enhances the feeling that our lives have meaning. 


Instead of taking good things for granted, Washington Post columnist Richard Sima advocates enjoying little moments as "joy snacks." He notes they pop up everywhere: The aroma of your morning coffee. The quiet beauty of a fresh snowfall. An enjoyable conversation or book. The opportunities for savoring are endless. 

Unfortunately, as Hicks and Martela observe, our goal-oriented society makes it hard to embrace these insights. However, you can develop your potential for experiential appreciation to create the joy and meaning needed to rekindle your zest. 

Start by engaging your growth mindset—the belief that intentional practice will grow your capacity, in this case for experiential appreciation. Then experiment with some of the tips I've curated from research, practice, and wisdom traditions. 

"We should slow down, let life surprise us, and embrace the significance in the everyday."

~ Joshua Hicks & Frank Martela Tweet this



Five Ways to Grow Your Joy 

1. Journal your experiences of gratitude. As suggested by the above studies, consider carving out time to write about current experiences that you appreciate. This has the potential to induce an upward spiral of gratitude and joy that contributes to well-being. 

2. Tune in to nature. Watch inspiring nature videos to enhance experiential appreciation, as did subjects in Hicks and Martela's research. They, along with other investigators, also recommend direct interaction with nature as a way of boosting positive emotions. 

3. Make good experiences stickier. You can become more intentional about "taking in the good" using steps outlined by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D.: 

a. Notice a good fact and turn it into a positive experience. Look at good things, e.g., an unexpected compliment, as opportunities. 
b. Really enjoy the experience. Stick with it for at least 30 seconds without multitasking or becoming distracted. Let it fill your awareness. 
c. Consciously take in the goodness of the experience. Sense a warm glow spreading inside your chest or perhaps imagine a jewel going into your heart's treasure chest. Know that you are gradually rewiring your brain's negativity default. 

4. Avoid a gourmet attitude. Gourmets, by insisting on rarified experiences, constantly miss out on ordinary delights, observes William Irvine, a philosophy professor popularizing ancient Stoic wisdom. Notice where your fastidiousness or judgmental attitude gets in the way of appreciating your experience.

5. Take the "daily joy challenge." In The Book of Delights, acclaimed poet Ross Gay recounts his personal challenge to find daily reasons to rejoice for an entire year. He rhapsodizes over the odd beauty of a praying mantis, the onomatopoeia of the word jenky, and other small marvels. What quirky, awesome, joyful things might you notice? 


One of positive psychology's founders, Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., summarized decades of the field's research in three simple words: "Other people matter."

When it comes to living the good life—including the experience of joy, other people can provide ample opportunities. As you implement the above strategies, don't overlook your social connections. Who deserves your gratitude? Who is creating a positive experience for you? Where can you drop your judgmental attitude about someone else? With whom might you rejoice in each day? 

"The mere sense of living is joy enough." ~ Emily Dickinson | Tweet this


From the Buddhist loving kindness tradition comes the practice of sympathetic joy. This involves delighting in the good fortune of others—thereby multiplying your own happiness and deepening connections with others. Meanwhile, schadenfreude (deriving pleasure from someone else's misfortune) would be its opposite.

Create Your Joy Algorithm 

The consensus is in: Nurturing an appreciative attitude towards everyday delights benefits us in myriad ways. We flourish when we pause to fully experience moments of joy and beauty. 

It's a healthy alternative to cruising on automatic pilot or to miring yourself in constant struggle. And you'll find it is more easily accessed than perfect bliss. 

Life extends a daily invitation to wake up to the good things all around you, ranging from tiny delights to major thrills. Immerse yourself in moments that make you smile—even if they don't take your breath away. Joy, in the end, is a personal choice. 

Need more encouragement? Keep in mind that what you focus on grows. Your chosen focus creates your personal mental algorithms, just as your attention and "likes" create algorithms on your Facebook or Instagram accounts. In short, you have the power to determine how often positive moments show up in your daily life feed. 

The start of a new year makes an ideal time to commit to cultivating your capacity for more joy and meaning on your route to your degree. Instead of deferring them until after graduation, experiment with these strategies and start basking in a year of zest and well-being! 

"If you carry joy in your heart, you can heal any moment." ~ Carlos Santana Tweet this




An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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