Recovering Joy | University of Northwestern, St. Paul
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Recovering Joy


By Sarah Arthur, Parent Council on Thursday, December 3, 2020

graphic for Recovering Joy

2020 has been no laughing matter. However, one of the things I miss most is laughing more. The seriousness of what we have been up against has the potential to steal our sense of humor and the gravity of our circumstances has a way of quietly overshadowing our joy. When it feels like a battle to find the light at the end of the tunnel, the “light” in lighthearted is hard to find, too.

I’ve been hearing about mental health challenges on the rise, skin hunger from the lack of hugging, and COVID fatigue from enduring months of restrictions. What I am not hearing much about is our loss of levity, but I sure am FEELING it. How about you? The need to find our daily dose of joy is as important to emotional safety as wearing our masks is to physical safety. In order to stay resilient in the face of multiple stressors, we need to find ways to transcend our circumstances.

It’s no secret that it feels good to laugh. Even when we laugh so hard that it hurts, it leaves us with a smile on our faces. We might be clutching our bellies, gasping for breath, and rubbing cheeks sore from grinning hard, but it still feels great. It’s also no secret that laughter is good for us. Proverbs 17:22 describes a cheerful heart as good medicine while a crushed spirit (think despair, hopelessness, and an absence of joy) leaves us with “dried up bones.” I’d personally rather be filled up with joy than find myself bone dry! God is still good and laughter is one of His best gifts to us.

Science supports Scripture in demonstrating that laughter really does make us healthier. Research shows that laughter boosts your immune system by reducing stress hormones and increasing the production of antibodies. Laughter also induces the release of endorphins that give us a boost of energy and diminish our perception of pain. Even the anticipation of something fun or the expectation of laughter increases endorphins in our systems. Perhaps best of all, laughter causes our bodies to produce “feel good” chemicals, including oxytocin, the same chemical that is produced when parents are bonding with their newborn, when we are falling in love, or when we are feeling deep empathy with someone. So, laughter is good for our bodies AND our relationships! While I am not a medical doctor, based on what I see in both Scripture and scientific study, I feel confident in prescribing more laughter as one antidote for the heaviness we have been walking through in 2020.

Scripture reminds us in Psalm 30 that “weeping may last for a night but joy WILL come in the morning.” We see consistent patterns in Scripture that times of great pain or hardship are followed by joyful celebrations. We can be certain that the challenges we are facing in 2020 will not last forever. However, most of us need some relief NOW. This challenging time in history will pass, but we don’t have to wait for it to be over to find some light in the darkness.

Rather than just hope recovery happens, I recommend planning to recover joy. Even though we are facing COVID restrictions and our holiday gatherings are dwindling, our time at home with our immediate families is about to gain some ground. As your college students set their books aside for a time, and as we focus on those in our immediate household more, can I encourage you to also focus on practicing joy and building in laughter? While we know some of the situations that spontaneously trigger the production of these good chemicals, we also know that we can also intentionally focus our thoughts and choose activities that trigger those responses.

Make a plan for laughter. Build it in. You know what gets your family laughing. It’s those things that bring out the inner child in you and your kids—no matter your ages. Take some time now to plug in some time for family fun on the Christmas calendar. Here are some ideas for two or more —including our young adult children—that are sure to bring on the smiles:

  1. Play the board games that make you laugh the hardest. Need suggestions? Try Say Anything (Family Edition), Wits & Wagers, Telestrations, The Game of Things, Exploding Kittens, or Mad Gab. If you can’t play in person, there are now many online choices that can be played virtually with family or friends that can’t be with you this holiday.
  2. Use music to bring on the smiles. The household who quarantines together can still sing together! Have a Christmas carol sing along with improvised instruments. Family karaoke works for all ages, even on a virtual call. Make a memory with some drive-by Christmas caroling bubble-to-bubble or create a Zoom video of families at a distance making a Christmas choir. Even if you don’t think you can sing, you can play the game Spontuneous. If you would rather dance than sing, crank up the tunes for a dance off.
  3. Build a snow-something together or compete for the best snow sculpture. Create a snow-penguin, your own Bumble, or your best likeness of Uncle Bob. Then give in to the inevitable snowball fight!
  4. Go beyond the ugly sweater. A family picture in anything wild and wacky you can find in red and green is a memory maker. Or, break up into teams and choose a willing member to be dressed as a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments, a tree skirt, and a tree-topper for the volunteer. Challenge friends and family in other bubbles to create their own competitions and post pictures of the results!
  5. Have a gingerbread house decorating extravaganza. Kits can be ordered online. If you make more than one, post the pictures for family at a distance to vote on their favorites. Our adult children ASKED to do this again last Christmas.
  6. Do something silly (that’s still safe). Build Marshmallow catapults and take turns competing for a distance record. Have a silly string war. Re-create a childhood memory. Or, pull out the sleeping bags for a sleeping-under-the-tree night.
  7. Use the TV triggers. Plan a movie night to watch a clean comedy together. Ask your housemates to share their favorite funny clips on YouTube. Pull out the old family videos.
  8. Have the treats anyway. Organize a cookie swap with an outdoor (driveway? deck?) pass-off. Host a family version of the Great British Bake-Off. Have a virtual baking party. Do Ring-and-Run drop offs of treats for family and friends.

Zoom is popular for virtual visits but there are many alternatives. Google Meet, Facebook Messenger, Facetime, Outlook Teams, Google GoToMeeting, and Discord are all great options. COVID has escalated the competition between platforms so the innovations in features just keep getting better and better. If the technology is new to you, it won’t be to your student. Have them train others or host the visit themselves!

Invite God into your planning. After all, He is the one who created laughter and joy is His specialty. Galatians 5:22 reminds us that JOY is listed second only to love in the fruits of the Spirit. I Chronicles 16:27 teaches us that “strength and joy are in his dwelling place,” and Nehemiah 8:10 instructs us, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” God wants to gifts us with a package deal—both the strength AND the joy we need to sustain us.

Making a place for laughter in the midst of our challenges may be our best gift to our families this Christmas. Even though making memories may take more creativity than it did in years past, I know that the events we fashion for family and friends this season can be exceptional despite the circumstances. We’ve already invented online office parties and baby showers. Drive-by birthday parties and micro weddings are new, booming trends. We’ve already proven that we can still find ways to share good times in the midst of the worst of times. Blessings to you and yours as you find ways to be together that don’t wait for recovery to happen before you deliberately plan to recover joy.

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