Most of us think of joy as something we’d like to experience more of, but could cultivating joy actually help change the world for the better? Could we learn to appreciate each other more? Build more vibrant communities? Love our planet more? The answer, according to presenters at the recent Global Joy Summit, was an unequivocal ‘yes.’
Co-sponsored by Mind & Life, the Fetzer Institute, Awake Network Foundation, Mission: JOY, and IDEA Architects, the free, online event combined science, spiritual teachings, the arts, and interactive workshops with the wisdom of two global icons: His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. More than 30 renowned speakers shared joy-themed reflections inspired by the two leaders, whose extraordinary friendship is captured in The Book of Joy and Mission: JOY film.
With people nearly everywhere experiencing more sadness, worry, stress, and anger, according to a recent global survey, the Summit spoke to a palpable yearning for more joy and meaning in life. To satisfy this profound human need, 186,000+ viewers in 190 countries came to learn more—and share their own sources of joy. (Note: If you missed the Summit, or would like to revisit its content, the full event recordings are available for purchase on a sliding scale, with generosity-based pricing options.)
Citing a range of contemporary challenges—from individualism, materialism, and anxiety to rampant inequality and destruction of the Earth’s living systems, presenters illuminated a more joy-filled path forward rooted in open-heartedness, community, and embrace of our interconnection.
“We all have the responsibility to build a healthier,
more compassionate world.”
—The Dalai Lama
During a screening of the Mission: Joy film, viewers reconnected with the wisdom, grace, and humor of Archbishop Tutu. “Our greatest joy is when we seek to do good for others,” he said. His sentiments were echoed by the Dalai Lama, who told participants: “We all have the responsibility to build a healthier, more compassionate world.” With many of today’s problems stemming from excessive self focus, he added, “joy stems from a mind that orients towards others.”
The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow
While both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu experienced profound suffering in their own lives—from the former’s brutal exile from Tibet to the latter’s lengthy struggle against apartheid and in support of justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa—each found a pathway to greater peace and joy.
“You can’t have joy without sorrow,” said actor Rainn Wilson. “We need to experience the shadow; only then can we find our way back to joy.” Like other speakers, he saw the present moment as ripe with opportunity to rise to our better selves.
Reflecting on the lingering effects of the Covid pandemic, Bishop Michael Curry encouraged listeners to lean in to re-building community as a path to joy. “Now, more than ever, it’s important that we love each other across all of our differences,” he said. “It’s a hard time for the world. We’ve got to claim the light in the midst of darkness.”
“Now, more than ever, it’s important that we love each
other across all of our differences.“
—Bishop Michael Curry
While there’s no escaping the full range of human emotions, including anxiety, stress, anger, and sadness, scientists Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas shared tools for managing challenging emotions, beginning with acceptance and perspective taking. Sadness, for example, plays an important role in our lives, allowing us to slow down and reflect on what has real meaning. Said Dacher, “When we see the Amazon burning and we feel sad, that’s telling us what we care about.”
With most of us socialized to seek happiness in material possessions, speakers were quick to distinguish between joy and happiness. “We live in a society where we think buying things will make us more happy,” said Rainn. “Actually, it’s service to others that will bring us more joy.“ Indeed, compassion and generosity stimulate reward pathways in the brain. “This is why we have a warm glow when we know we’ve done something that’s made a difference for someone else,” said Emiliana.
“We live in a society where we think buying things will make us more happy.
Actually, it’s service to others that will bring us more joy.“
Buddhist meditation teacher Mingyur Rinpoche shared his own boyhood experience of grappling with anxiety and panic attacks. Through the power of meditation and the use of awareness and breathing practices, he was able to “make friends” with his panic. Given today’s reality, it’s important to not let panic and fear take over, he cautioned, rather our current reality offers an opportunity to “learn, transform, and grow.”
For poet and author Ross Gay, our capacity for joy is intimately tied to our connection to others, and capacity for care. “I think of joy as… what emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows,” he said. Joy arises through connection—in a pick-up game of basketball, or while making and sharing a meal with others. Joy is a choice, a spiritual practice, he affirmed, that stems from being grateful for the relationships and experiences we share together.
Nurturing Joy from the Inside Out
How can we nurture greater joy within? It starts with an intention. Joy isn’t something we wait for to happen to us; rather “it’s a revolutionary act,” said Doug Abrams, co-author of the The Book of Joy, in introducing day three of the Summit. “Real, lasting joy is something we pursue and cultivate, even in the face of real challenges.”
Acknowledging the trials and trauma inherent in life, singer/songwriter Valerie June referred to joy as a “superpower” and a conscious choice. “Nobody can take your joy,” she said, rather we each need to “become alchemists, shifting our energy from the inside.”
Buddhist meditation teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche described the natural joy that arises within oneself, or “essence love,” adding that it’s important to take time to connect with that “warm place of love” that’s not dependent on conditions. Accessing joy takes practice and begins with developing emotional awareness.
Moving beyond a preoccupation with self is yet another stepping stone on the pathway to joy, reflected health psychologist Kelly McGonical. Joy is a momentary sense that who you are is bigger than yourself and connected to others, said Kelly, who described practices that can facilitate this inward-outward transformation, beginning with finding a sense of belonging in the body and coming home to one’s breath.
Activists and changemakers, in particular, need to take care to nurture their inner resources, emphasized humanitarian and journalist Zainab Salbi. Cultivating inner joy can have a profound influence on the world around us, she said, adding, “The simple act of smiling and being optimistic and positive can have a soulful impact on those we’re serving.”
“The simple act of smiling and being optimistic and positive
can have a soulful impact on those we’re serving.“
Ubuntu and Interconnection
While the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu each represent different spiritual traditions, both found common ground in their shared belief in the oneness of humanity. Our tendency is to draw our ‘we’ too small, limiting our circle of care to family and friends, said Reverend Mpho Tutu Van Furth in a conversation with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele. “We forget that each one of us is tied to each other,” added Mpho, reflecting on the African philosophy of ubuntu. Our humanity is formed through our relationship with others, echoed Dr. Ramphele, who referred to current emergencies as angels of teaching. “We need to repair the broken ties that connect us to ourselves, to nature, and to one another.”
“…current emergencies are also angels of teaching. We need to repair
the broken ties that connect us to ourselves, to nature, and to one another.“
—Mamphela Ramphele, MD
Our mindsets—and where we place our attention—also have a big role to play in our ability to serve as agents of positive change. “What we pay attention to grows,” said activist and writer adrienne maree brown. Adrienne cautioned changemakers not to let despair and hopelessness take over. “Oppressed people, in particular, feel like they only deserve the lower range of emotion,” she added, making it all the more important to cultivate and spread joy.
Through these and many other voices, the Summit reinforced that joy is very much tied to the narratives we hold about ourselves and the world. Pastoral Counselor Pamela Oyo Yetunde cautioned that “our survival depends on going beyond the current story” we hold. Building on the example set by Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, Summit organizers invited viewers to live into a more joy-filled story rooted in our shared humanity.
For those who missed the Summit or would like to revisit the content, you can purchase the full event recordings on a sliding scale, with generosity-based pricing options.
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