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Stuck In A Rut? Sometimes Joy Takes A Little Practice

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The pandemic has caused a lot of us to have signs of what psychologists call languishing, which is a feeling of weariness or stagnation in everyday life. But an emerging area of brain science has a new way to help lift you out of languishing and bring more joy into your life. NPR is launching an app that helps. It helps you experience joy. Here to tell us about the science behind that is NPR's global health correspondent, Michaeleen Doucleff. Hey, Michaeleen.


KING: So how do we use the Joy Generator?

DOUCLEFF: It's all at, and you'll be able to click on links that do things like this.


KING: All right, so that's the sound of someone peeling garlic and then the sound of mud bubbling. How does that generate joy?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so the app has two effects, one short term and one over the long term. Let's start with the short term. So while you use the Joy Generator, it helps your brain create positive emotions. There's a whole bunch of these emotions, like nurturing, love, serenity, wonder, awe. Belinda Campos is a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. She says many of these emotions make us feel good by shifting the focus away from our self - that is, like, me and my problems - and on to others.

BELINDA CAMPOS: Putting the self in its balanced place of not being absolutely the highest thing on our to-do list. Positive emotions, when we feel them, either as part of that experience, diminish the self. Our focus is on others.

DOUCLEFF: So, you know, being isolated, like, physically and socially this past year has given many people more opportunities to focus inward in a way that might be destructive, like being a bit stuck in your head. So these positive emotions that focus us on others may just be the antidote to what people need.

KING: To get us out of our heads.

DOUCLEFF: Yes, yes, to get us out of our head. Exactly.

KING: OK, so that's interesting. That's the immediate effect. But does this really help people over time?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So this is where positive emotions become quite powerful. Lisa Feldman Barrett is a psychologist at Northeastern University. She talked to me about how the brain decides which emotions to call on. It's more likely to use ones that it's already used in the past.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: We're using memories from the past in order to create the present. That's very powerful knowledge because you can, in fact, modify what you feel in very direct ways.

DOUCLEFF: Specifically, she says, if you practice a particular emotion today - say, awe or gratitude or one with the app - then over time, it will become easier to feel those emotions in the future.

FELDMAN BARRETT: Your brain grows new connections that makes it easier for you to automatically create different emotions in the future.

DOUCLEFF: So if you start to feel a negative emotion, like fear or anger, you can more easily swap it for a positive one, like awe.

KING: But give me an example of that. How do you practice having positive emotions?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So the Joy Generator can get you started. When you're working or you have your phone, it can be your coach. There's a section that can help you find the state of flow. There's the power of cute, which triggers your desire to nurture and love. But then also look for these opportunities for joy in real life. Even a weed growing in the crack in the sidewalk could evoke awe.

KING: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. Thanks, Michaeleen.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you so much, Noel.

KING: And you can find NPR's Joy Generator app by going to


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