How Intentional Joy Can Save Your Life

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash.

Where Joy Is Lacking…

The discourse surrounding adult leisure time in America rarely goes beyond the ubiquitous ‘Netflix binge.’ At least in my circles, it feels like ‘what people do’ when work is over, rush hour endured, and the kids are put to bed can be summed up by flopping down, turning something on, and becoming a husk.

We get so protective of this kind of “leisure” time too. The mere concept of asking more of myself when I’m tired and decompressing is enough to make me indignant. But I deserve this! I pout. I’m tired, and I want to turn off! How else am I supposed to unwind?

And then it hits me. I see my reflection in the dark shine of my loading screen. Vacant, vapid, peering down my chin, I cannot help but ask myself: Do I actually want to be doing this?

Suddenly— like calling attention to a glitch in the Matrix— the spell breaks, and I realize that I’m not actually fatigued at all, I’m bored.

Deeply, numbly, painfully bored.

In those situations, I’m unconsciously choosing to take the boredom and rebrand it as rest because I’m too tired to do otherwise. And I don’t think I’m the only guilty one here…

Ingrid Fetell Lee, internet-famous designer and author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, has strong opinions on how adults rob themselves of everyday joy. She claims, “burnout often has as much boredom in it as exhaustion,” and goes on to discuss how we can combat burnout (and depression, anxiety, and other diseases) through curation. Sisters in spirit to Marie Kondo, she posits that making the effort to curate our times and spaces for the purpose of feeling joy can breathe life back into our sad streamer husks (lol). Suddenly, we’re reminded that we’re free agents— people with power and passions!

Joy: A How-To

So, if deliberately curating joy is the key to culling adult-life anhedonia and making the most of our limited leisure time, the next question to ask is this: “How do you curate joy?”

Let’s strip it back to the basics. Joe Killian, play instructor and key member of the New Games Foundation, claims that “‘the idea of fun or happiness is much more complicated [and abstract] than anybody would have guessed… [However], we’ve all been kids, so we all have a basic education in play.” Furthermore, psychologist, therapist, author, and founder of the National Institute for Play (NIFP), Dr. Stuart Brown, famously said: “The opposite of play is not work— the opposite of play is depression.” With this sentiment in mind, I’ve reevaluated my personal relationship with joy, fun, and play. It’s been all too easy for me to go to sleep to myself in the grind, sedating the excitable inner child that brings a sense of eagerness and energy to my daily life. It’s her that I should be reaching out to in those moments when I couch-flop and queue up YouTube. After all, she wants to play!

Play is an elusive state for most adults, but it doesn’t have to be. Our plastic cars, dolls, and playgrounds may have lost their luster, but the human animal is inherently playful, curious, and wonder-seeking in all stages of life. There are many ways to activate a state of play in yourself, but the most common I’ve read about is through the ever-important, ever-simple, ever-mutable hobby.

“Hobbies are a well-worn path to create habits that lead to joy.” Says journalist Arielle Retting of NPR. Sometimes the only question you need to ask yourself to kill burnout and revamp your leisure is “ahh… but what am [I] really into?”

The Hobby Habit

Scientific journalist, Catherine Price, “defines [joy] as a state in which we experience playfulness, connection to others, and flow— that feeling where you lose track of time because you’re ‘in the zone’ and not worried about how you look or how well you perform.” For those who don’t know where to start, she recommends that you put away the screens and “come up with three or four memories [where] you had real fun,” and then look for patterns. Where did the fun take place? What kinds of activities were involved? Were you alone or with other people? Sooner or later, your answers will help you cobble together a hobby map— a personal recipe for feelings of joy.

For me, that hobby map is diverse. For example, my life overflows with color when I take myself out to the movies, when I turn on an epic score and pour myself into creative writing, when I play in my weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign, when I’m performing on a stage, when I dance like a wildling in my living room, and when I nurture myself by making my favorite dishes from scratch… I could go on and on. Those are examples of my play states. And now that I know this, I’ve largely been able to avoid the boredom and lethargy of time unmindfully spent.

Once you’ve identified a few things that bring out that sense of play, it’s important to make a hobby habit. It may sound antithetical, but getting a planner and scheduling your personal playtime is a sound way to make sure it actually happens. Mike Rucker, a psychologist, claims that “when you put something fun like a hike on the calendar, you open [yourself] up to [opportunities where you can feel] ‘awe and wonder,’ like the surprise appearance of a deer on the path, for example… These moments can improve mood and lower stress levels, which can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.”

To echo Ingrid Fetell Lee once more, the reason why some burnouts feel so crushing is that we assume play is something that will ‘just happen,’ when in reality, it’s something that must be mindfully created, or even just given the opportunity to strike. Like with lightning, there’s a chance a beautiful, bright cobalt bolt will hit the hilltop spontaneously, but if you take the time to plant a lightning rod on that hilltop, your strike chances go up astronomically. “If we view the future as a blank, uncertain space, then it’s hard to trust that joy will return once it has gone. Each downswing of joy feels like a regression, each nadir like stagnation,” she says. “If instead, we can rely on the repetition of certain delights at regular intervals, then the wavelike quality of joy becomes more present in our lives. Cycles create a symmetry between past and future that reminds us joy will come back again.”

When it comes to your happiness, don’t leave it to chance. Plan it out. Give it time. Be intentional. Buy in to the experience you’re making for yourself. Another Fetell Lee-ism: “Play is one of our greatest means of accessing delight, with deep roots in human life.” Like with plants, those roots need tending, or else disconnection from everything, especially ourselves, becomes inevitable.

In Sum, and Then Some…

To recap, read this list.


  • Ask yourself every moment, “Do I actually want to be doing this?”
    • If the answer is yes, keep doing it!
    • If the answer is no, it’s time to make a hobby map.
  • Reflect on moments where you’ve felt the freest, record those moments, and identify your play patterns.
  • Once you’ve identified what really makes you feel alive, schedule play for yourself. AND be protective of it. Your job, family, friends, and all the obligations those things present can wait.


Here are a few more things that have helped/been fascinating for me as I’ve researched adult play. Do with these as you please.

  • Dr. Stuart Brown claims that we all have ‘play personalities,’ personalities that appear as children and remain as we age. Knowing which of the eight-play archetypes you are— joker, kinesthete, explorer, competitor, director, collector, artist, and storyteller— can be an incredible tool for knowing how to hack your happiness. If you’re interested in learning more about which play personality you have, you can peruse this articlethis article, and this article. Or you can simply read Dr. Stuart’s book!
  • Examine your living space. Where could you inject more joy? Certain colors, shapes, textures, and styles are sure to get you going. For example, if your favorite color is powder blue, consider painting something in your house that color. Add a powder blue accent wall, paint the inside of your closet, your front door, your kitchen drawers, whatever (or get blue renter-friendly wallpaper if you’re like me and you live in an apartment)! Or, if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to a certain item at the store, ask yourself why. Or try searching ‘joyful interiors’ on Google images and scroll for a bit. Save everything that makes you smile, and sooner or later, you’ll develop a catalog of space-applicable things that will help you access play states by simply existing in your space.
  • Music and movement can be an easy fast track to play. It sounds strange, but turning on a song you love and simply allowing your body to move with the music is a fantastic exercise in joy. Just turn it on and see what happens! No one is watching, I promise (and if they watch, just dance harder and assert your dominance).
  • Read Ingrid Fetell Lee’s book. Seriously. Life-changing. Especially if you love design/visual arts. It’s a must-read. You can learn more about her book and her professional joyspotting here

To conclude, my plea is for you to keep interrogating yourself. Why do we settle when it comes to spending our time, our most precious resource? Why are we not constantly asking ourselves the question ‘do I actually want to be doing this?’ Or ‘could I be doing something that engages more of me? Fills me to the brim? Both unwinds and fulfills me?’

Ask enough questions, and answers will follow.

Or maybe they’ll chase. Chasing is more fun anyway! 

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About Cristin Dickey

Born in Maryland, raised in Texas, and educated in Utah, Cristin is a purveyor of stories from all widths and walks of life.  With a background in filmmaking and a staunch passion for literature, she aspires to give digital spaces a uniquely human touch.

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