Written by : JUDITH FRIZLEN 

How to Cultivate Joy in a Challenging World

Young children awaken joy in me—their adorableness, funny comments, and unbridled enthusiasm are contagious. In my professional life, I champion the needs of the young child so I have both knowledge and experience in human development. After more than three decades, I still marvel when I witness the growth and learning that happens in the early years. It is truly a wonder!

When we welcomed two grandsons into our family within two years, I knew both the delights and challenges awaiting me. And I knew the importance of cultivating joy because young children learn through imitation. If we want children to know happiness, we need to embody it. Joy is the embodiment of the outward expression of happiness and it is a choice.

Cultivating joy is a learned skill that requires a level of brain development beyond the capacity of the young child. Children cannot self-regulate because they do not yet have the neural pathways to process feelings and make choices about them. They do, however, pick up on the adults’ internal experience which behooves us to bring joy to our encounters with children.

Mastering your thoughts

But how do we cultivate joy in a world full of challenges? When my children were young, I made a decision to learn to master my thoughts. This involves awareness and recognition that events are neither inherently good or bad. Yet they can be uncomfortable, difficult, trigger past experiences, and conjure up fears of the worst possible outcomes. In those moments, our bodies secrete adrenaline preparing us for fight, flight, or freeze but instead, we need to pause.

Pausing creates space to witness and name thoughts rather than reacting to them. It is a practice, one that has taken me years to learn. Leaning on the skill of objective observation I developed in early childhood education was helpful. It is applicable in moments when I am triggered—to notice the physical and emotional experience but not identify with it. And to help my body release the adrenaline, the tools I use include vigorous house cleaning, going for a walk, or shaking my limbs which may feel so funny that it makes me chuckle. Being aware of my triggers and ways to release adrenaline helps me circumvent blocks that thwart joy.

Creating a joyous atmosphere

In the early childhood center I founded, there were some difficult moments when unexpected things happened, adults were out of sorts, and children imitated them. It is normal to have days when we are not happy. That’s when we rely on practices to cultivate joy from the inside out. Learning how to create a joyous atmosphere is a part of the training for parents and early childhood educators. I find them useful for life in general.

Having rhythms of the day and week is one of the practices. Habits for my morning routine, meals, work, chores, and afternoon walk energize and support me. They give form to my days and weeks which provides a feeling of security and reduces the stress of decision-making. There is joy in knowing that there is time and space to do everything I need to do including rest and relaxation. I lean into my rhythms to cultivate joy.

While sitting at the desk in my second floor office, I often look out the picture window and notice the trees. Now they are full of colored leaves but before long, they will be bare. The cycles of nature bring me joy so I take time to notice the expression of the seasons outdoors.

While taking a car trip with the grandchildren, we often sing just like we did with our children. When we sing, we breathe and smile together while filling the air with music. It uplifts our spirits and opens our hearts to joy!

Just thinking of our grandchildren brings me joy as I recall the glimmers—moments of joy, safety, and connection that we share. And how happy we are together.


Judith Frizlen is a writer, teacher, mother, grandmother, and founder of the Rose Garden Early Childhood Center. Her newest literary treasure, Where Wisdom Meets Wonder: 40 Stories of Grandma Love, celebrates the unique bond between Grandparents and Grandchildren and embraces aging. Her other books include Unpacking Guilt: A Mother’s Journey to Freedom, Words for Parents in Small Doses, and Words for Teachers and Caregivers in Small Doses. For more, judithfrizlen.com.

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