Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas Shares Why Joy Is Critical For Your Health - Exclusive

When you're under a lot of pressure and focused on just getting through the obligatory tasks of life without falling apart, the idea of actively seeking out more joy may sound laughable. Sure, it would be nice, but who has time for that when so much else needs to be done? For some, joy can feel like a leisure-class luxury.

But history and science show this isn't the case. The documentary "Mission: JOY," for example, documents the long friendship between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and how they chose to pursue joy despite facing professional and personal obstacles few of us can imagine. "Mission: JOY," in turn, inspired University of California at Berkeley psychologist Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas to launch The BIG JOY Project, which seeks to identify simple, actionable ways ordinary people can bring more joy into their lives. In an exclusive e-mail interview, Dr. Simon-Thomas explained why joy doesn't just make you happier but is also critical for your physical and mental health.

True joy isn't what you might think

Contrary to popular belief, genuine, real joy means more than bubble baths, shooting stars, and Netflix binges. "I define joy in the same way as overall happiness in life — that is, generally feeling good, coping well with adversity, and feeling like you matter," explained Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas. "Momentary pleasant feelings also referred to as 'hedonic happiness' are fleeting and refer to emotional responses to gained resources and opportunities. While these so-called positive emotions play an important role in joy, they don't last, and we get used to whatever evokes them. They are not a sustainable source of joy."

Instead, lasting, sustainable joy comes from finding meaning and human connection in your life, even in the face of setbacks — what Dr. Simon-Thomas calls "eudaimonic happiness." This type of happiness, she explained, has the power to sustain you through good times and bad. "It is a big part of what His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu convey in the film," she said.

A joyful outlook can improve your physical and mental health

Just as the choice to cultivate relationships is a conscious decision, so is the choice to seek out more joy. As Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas noted, even small actions, such as "making a gratitude list, committing five acts of kindness is a day, and adopting a more optimistic perspective on personal setbacks," can set you on the road to a more joyful mindset. "Studies are beginning to show which activities work best for most people, and our next BIG JOY project aims to uncover even more."

Of course, it's obvious that a life with more joy is preferable to a life with less. But Dr. Simon-Thomas added that plentiful research has identified specific health benefits that come from embracing joy. "225 scientific studies show that people with more joy are more productive at work and more creative; make more money and have more sought-after jobs; are more effective leaders and negotiators; are more likely to marry and have fulfilling marriages, and less likely to divorce; have more friends and social support; have stronger immune systems, are physically healthier, and live longer; are more helpful and philanthropic; [and] show more resilience to stress and trauma," she said.

Be sure to sign up for The BIG JOY Project and discover which micro-acts of joy are most appealing and beneficial for you.