The Neuroscience of Joy

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” ~ CS Lewis

Earthly passions and desires are fleeting.  Often happiness is defined by our relationship to outward experiences or circumstance.  If I have piles of money in the bank, then I will be happy.  If I have a fancy car, then I will feel secure.  If I am famous, then I will be glamorous and happy.  If I can just get hold of whatever it is, then I will finally be happy.  The problem is that getting hold of something is just half of it.  Once we get hold of anything, then we must keep it.  Keeping hold of something fleeting is terribly difficult indeed.  It is the paradox of addiction.  Joy is beyond the happiness of resting in the security of outward experiences and circumstances.  Joy is an end in itself.  

The Neuroscience of Joy

Much could be said about the neuroscience of joy.  Three points are highlighted below: the flow state, laughter, and play.  

Flow: The Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has championed the idea of the flow state.  It is also known as “being in the zone”.  Many people report losing a sense of time and space when they enter the flow state or “being in the zone”.  Like an artist or a painter in the midst of their creative expression, the flow state is when a person is totally absorbed in the process of using their skills.  The same can be said for a teacher with students or a gardener in nature.  Each of us has gifts that we share with the world that we can become totally absorbed in. We can enter the flow state when the challenge of a situation meets our skill to engage it.  When our skills are being put to the test by a challenging situation, then we can get lost in it.  It is the crossroads of creativity.  If there is too much challenge in a situation, then we may feel overwhelmed by it.  If we have few resources and the risk is high, then we might get filled with anxiety. If there is not enough challenge in a situation, it may seem boring.  An example would be doing the exact same thing over and over again year after year.  

Any habit can help generate the flow state.  What is so special about the creative flow state, is that it is an end it itself.  Being challenged to create and engage our skills within and amongst the world is the gift in itself. The same can be said of the fruit of the Spirit.  As we grow in kindness, we will perhaps pick up on more social cues and learn of new ways to provide kindness to others.  As we grow in patience, we can maintain our hopes and plans for the future even in the midst of the most difficult challenges.  And because our creativity and the skills that we apply are to build God’s kingdom, we need not get lost in measuring our productivity.

Below is a diagram illustrating how high skill and high challenge meet to generate the flow state.

The flow state swaps out conscious processing for more unconscious processing.  Attention is heightened in the flow state.  Areas of the brain that would inhibit quick thinking are turned off.  Research has found that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that involves self-monitoring is turned off in the flow state.  This allows for creativity to flow more freely. Research also shows that the neurochemicals of endorphins, norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin play an active part in flow by stimulating pleasure and performance enhancement.[i] 

Laughter:  A universal gift wired into our beings is laughter.  Laughter produces endorphins and an overall sense of wellbeing.  It improves the immune system.  It decreases stress hormones.  It is wonderful!  And we cannot get enough of it.  Scripture reminds us to rejoice in it: A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance,but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken” (Proverbs 15:13).  In his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin outlines that humor and laughter are at the heart of a spiritual life.  The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu also ruminate on its power in their The Book of Joy.  So often in the history of spiritual formation, it was believed heavy handedness was the optimal approach.  But now we recognize that people of faith live richer lives when they don’t take themselves too seriously.  With laughter we can relish some of our most grieved mistakes or missteps.  Is there a time in your life when you made an incredibly embarrassing mistake that you can now look back on and laugh?  Laughter helps us overcome our drive toward perfection. We can embrace our imperfection and laugh at it!  

Play:  Children help us find joy.  They are our greatest teachers about the joy of play. They help us to remember how important play is both for us spiritually and neurologically.  The researcher Stuart Brown has made many discoveries about play.  He has discovered how social play fires up the cerebellum, drives impulses to the frontal lobe, and develops contextual memory.  The cerebellum, once thought to be primarily for motor coordination, is now being seen as key to “cognitive functions such as attention, language processing, sensing musical rhythm, and more.”[ii]  Play should not stop in childhood.  Our lives should be infused with play throughout.  Play is enormously important in crafting the brain.  And if the purpose is more important than the act, it is probably not play.  

The Neuroscience of Addiction

“You are slaves of the one whom you obey.” (Romans 6:16)

Often sadness is considered the opposite of joy.  I believe addiction is in many ways the opposite of joy largely because of how it functions neurologically.  Joy is reward in itself, but its opposite is truly opposite: Addiction craves external rewards and numbs us to the joy of actually experiencing them.  Addiction is not reward in itself.  It does not provide either love or creativity.  The thrill comes from the chase.  It is a hedonic treadmill.  Addiction is defined by abuse, dependence, and pathological craving. 

The neurochemical, dopamine is at the heart of the reward system.  Healthy levels of dopamine will help us with motivation and in the pursuit of desires. It is vitally important to us. Dopamine is released from the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmentum area.  In the frontal cortex it will help us work toward our desired goals.  It will also help with decision making. Dopamine will help us feel rewarded in our pursuit of meaning and purpose.  

But if the meaning and purpose we find in life is hurtful to others or found through addiction, then the dopamine circuit gets turned toward the negative.  Studies have shown that elevated levels of dopamine do not make people more content. Rather they get geared up for wanting more.  They become addicts.  If you have not personally suffered from addiction it is almost certain that you know someone who does or has suffered.

Addiction can be for substances such as alcohol as well as behaviors.  Behaviors can range from food, pornography, video games, gambling to shopping addiction.  It can be for many things.  Much of our sensationalized traumatic news can fit into the category of addiction. We could also include the violence we see on television and in video games.  The increased prevalence and entertainment of violence has been labeled by some as the pornography of violence.  

Common to various types of addiction is the hijacking of the reward system.  Numbing of the reward, tolerance, a large release of dopamine, and a weakened prefrontal cortex inhibitory response are all features of addiction and the hijack of our reward system.  When we suffer from addiction, the reward actually becomes less appealing over time.  Addicts need a bigger risk and reward to maintain a sense of desire and stimulation. Addiction is much more than a pleasurable diversion.  In addiction there is an inability to stop.  Addiction is destructive to our lives and relationships.

When our dopamine system is out of control, it is more like scratching an itch rather than medicine for a wound.  Many of our desires are very basic, such as for food or for procreation.  Advertisers know to play on these desires. Advertisers also play on our fears, pride, and feelings of in-group and out-group.  They often try to create our desires for us.  Cues are a large part of addiction.  Shiny, fast, and big are just a few that we could name. When our goals get manipulated, then we can become addicts.  Elevated dopamine will drive us toward craving.

Some of the most addictive substances, like cocaine or methamphetamine ramp up the effect of dopamine. The problem is that these systems of ramping up get so out of whack that they need more and more of the drug to produce the desired effect.  Much of our society is stuck in cycles of addiction: release, fear, guilt, tension, release, fear, guilt, tension.  The dopamine reward circuit must not get hijacked by fear.

Research shows that we are more joyful, have higher levels of self-esteem, concentration, and have more flow when we are creative and active.[iii]  


[i]“The Science of Peak Performance,” Time, accessed December 5, 2018,

[ii]Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, (New York: Avery, 2009), 34.

[iii]Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 101

Short Video on the Neuroscience of Joy vs Addiction