The Power of Leading with Appreciative Joy

It’s not always easy to show up with genuine happiness and gratitude, especially when we’re facing personal or organizational challenges. That’s why appreciative joy is powerful: By seeing the good even in adversity, we gain a balanced perspective, harmony, and resilience.

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Appreciative joy is an under-appreciated quality in leaders and our culture. By joy, I don’t mean the adrenaline-pumping happiness we can get from activities like whitewater rafting or the exhilaration of reaching a big goal or scoring the winning basket. These more exciting forms of joy are important—they build our capacity to fully enjoy and engage with life. However, they can also contribute to addictions and burnout. As basketball legend Michael Jordan shared at his first retirement after winning his third NBA title at the age of 30, “I didn’t feel all the same appreciation that I had felt before and it was tiresome.” The high levels of excited joy and pressure that often accompany success are not sustainable, because they trigger the sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze). 

Appreciative joy is our innate ability to delight in what’s good in the present moment, independent of our circumstances or success.

Appreciative joy is our innate ability to delight in what’s good in the present moment, independent of our circumstances or success. It’s available to us when we’re not pushing away unpleasant experiences, chasing after pleasant ones, or running in circles (because of doubt or restlessness). This kind of joy activates the parasympathetic system (rest and digest functions) that protect us from burnout and overwhelm, despite challenging situations. 

Opening Up to Sustainable Joy

I first became aware of the importance of appreciative joy over the course of a difficult conversation with a person dear to me (we’ll call him Ashok). The conundrum was that I deeply admired and loved Ashok, but he was supporting a situation that involved unethical values. I tried to use logic and emotional appeal to make him see the consequences of supporting an unethical leader. The harder I tried to make him see my point of view, the more he shut down. 

My obsession and disbelief about Ashok’s point of view went on for a couple of days until I stopped to meditate on the issue. After calming my mind, I asked the question, “What’s a mindful way to deal with this situation?” 

In my mind, I heard two words: “appreciative joy.” 

As I reflected on these words, it began to dawn on me what had been missing in my interactions with Ashok. His disagreeable comments had dominated my awareness, and I’d reduced fifty years of generosity and goodness in Ashok to his one disagreeable perspective. My myopic view of him in that moment and my striving to change him made me tense, rigid, and a little unhinged—not exactly the right conditions to have a healthy discussion, let alone change anyone’s mind. I had lost my connection to appreciative joy.

I took a few moments to return to appreciative joy. I remembered his good qualities and felt the resonance of that memory in my body. The softening in my shoulders and opening in my chest created space to approach the exchange with fresh eyes. Returning to a more balanced perspective, I could now see the bigger picture, including the causes and conditions that led to him having this perspective. 

Appreciative joy opened the way for compassion, instead of judgment, to guide my interactions.

Appreciative joy opened the way for compassion, instead of judgment, to guide my interactions with Ashok. One step I took was to introduce him to stories and information that he could relate to. As a result of this mind shift, our discussions were more meaningful, and we understood each other better. I don’t know if I changed Ashok’s perspective, but he seemed more receptive to other viewpoints. Returning to appreciative joy deepened our relationship and ability to have difficult conversations.

Since then, I’ve noticed that not only in difficult situations, but also in doing work we love, we can get hyper-focused and lose connection with appreciative joy and all the benefits that flow from this essential quality of the mind. How about you? Are you able to sustain your joy for people and work that you care about, despite challenges along the way? 

What is Appreciative Joy?

The essence of appreciative joy is captured in Mary Oliver’s simple “instructions for life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” In other words, appreciative joy is our ability to notice and delight in all that’s good in the present moment. This may sound simple, but it’s not easy. The kind of joy we tend to chase after usually depends upon circumstances that we may or may not be able to control. By building our capacity for appreciative joy, we can savor the different experiences of joy available to us without getting hooked on the pleasurable feelings, and we can find goodness even in challenging situations. Appreciative joy is a pervasive sense of contentment that we can find within us in moments when we’re free from any kind of restlessness, striving, and resistance.   

The term appreciative joy originally comes from Eastern wisdom traditions. To distinguish it from all the other experiences of joy, appreciative joy encompasses our capacity to feel ease, contentment, and gratitude even when things are not going exactly the way we want them to. Further, appreciative joy includes our ability to delight in others’ good qualities and happiness. Research in empathy has uncovered our ability to feel not only for others’ suffering but also their happiness, which is sometimes known as empathic joy. We can train ourselves to feel empathic joy even for people we don’t care about. 

How is this particular kind of joy beneficial for leaders? Let’s take a look.

3 Benefits of Appreciative Joy for Leaders

Whether you’re responsible for your family, team, community, or organization, appreciative joy is an essential quality for mindful leaders. More specifically, appreciative joy provides leaders with a balanced perspective, a foundation for success, and resilience.

1) A Balanced Perspective

Humans have a negativity bias, which means we give more attention to potential threats than to positive experiences. Take your body, for instance: You’re probably not dancing with joy if your body tends to be pain-free, but as soon as the tiniest of thorns pricks your little toe, all your attention will go there. Similarly, in my difficult conversation with Ashok, I developed tunnel vision, narrowly focusing to fix what was disagreeable. And this was with a person I cared about. However, by returning to appreciative joy I was able to bring a more balanced perspective and understanding to the exchange. 

Appreciative joy can disrupt our negativity bias and return us to equilibrium. According to a study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, happy people have a balanced response to positive and negative stimuli. This means that while participants lower in happiness primarily notice the negative stimuli, happier people notice the negative and the positive stimuli. We can infer from this study that, because happier participants were better equipped to see what was “going right” for them, without losing sensitivity to negative stimuli, leaders who train their brains to acknowledge the positives are better positioned to recognize opportunities and challenges in their fast-changing environments.

2) A Foundation for Success 

It turns out that we’re bad predictors of what will make us happy. We think that we’ll be happy when we accomplish our goals, when in fact, we’re more likely to reach our goals when we’re happy. That’s what this review of 225 studies about happiness tells us. It’s counterintuitive. But what they’re proposing is that if we have a happy disposition, we’re more likely to be successful across multiple life domains including work, income, health, and creativity and problem solving. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is the quality of your work and relationships when you’re only focusing on your negative experiences? We do better work when we enjoy what we’re doing than when we’re forcing ourselves to do it.

Indeed, that’s what this survey of over 500 employees across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific region discovered. Employees who reported feeling joy at work also reported more experiences of harmony, shared impact, and acknowledgment at work. Creating cultures that prioritize joy can promote stronger interconnection, shared purpose, and pride within organizations and communities.

There’s even evidence that feeling empathic joy—feeling others’ happiness—has positive outcomes for everyone involved. For example, according to an extensive study, empathic joy in teachers improved their performance and students’ test scores. Just like the teachers in these schools, leaders can role model empathic joy to create conditions for employees to thrive.

3) Resilience

There’s a common belief that if we love what we do, we won’t work a day. It may be true that people who love their work can work long and hard, but there are negative consequences. According to this article by author and workplace expert Jennifer Moss in Harvard Business Review, people who are passionate and can’t let go of their work or do purpose-driven work increase their risk of burnout. I know this from personal experience. As a mindfulness practitioner and teacher, I love what I do and can keep going, especially when I am working on a project such as writing or creating a new mindfulness program. Ironically, I have experienced burnout in my work helping others avoid burnout. The point here is that even if, and especially if, you care disproportionately about the work you do, you need to disrupt your potentially obsessive passions by shifting some of your attention to actions and interactions that bring joy and a healthy work-life balance for you. 

Here’s looking at all you changemakers who are leading change within an organization or society. Appreciative joy can refuel your tanks to do the good work you’re doing in the face of obstacles and resistance to change. A literature review of nursing studies points out that joy at work combats stress and burnout among nurses. Emotions are contagious. As leaders, when you show up with appreciative joy, you set the tone for how others act and interact in the organization.  

How to Lead with Appreciative Joy

You can authentically lead with appreciative joy and build a culture that prioritizes joy by first filling your own cup. As a leader, you’re probably juggling many responsibilities and it’s easy to not take time out for yourself. Given that appreciative joy is essential for a balanced perspective, performance, and resilience, it’s essential to take time to discover what nourishes and fulfills you. Even though the joy of appreciating art, music, and hobbies is temporary, these activities can strengthen your capacity to appreciate and be nourished by the beauty in your world. For example, taking a ukulele and song-writing class during the pandemic (also a period of social change in our town) helped me reconnect with my inner joy that made me more creative and effective as a town councilor. Listening to the first song I composed and sang still gives me joy!

Given that appreciative joy is essential for a balanced perspective, performance, and resilience, it’s essential to take time to discover what nourishes and fulfills you.

In order to rewire your brain for happiness, it’s not enough to just go through the motions of acknowledging good things in your life. When you savor the experience and feel the pleasant sensations in your body, your brain gets the message that you don’t have to be on fight-flight-freeze response and can relax. Over time, appreciative joy becomes a habit that replaces your tendencies for negativity bias. 

Like any other ability, appreciative joy can be strengthened with practice. In addition to spending time with activities and people that promote joy, getting in touch with your good qualities can enable you to authentically acknowledge the goodness in others.

Two Simple Practices to Cultivate Appreciative Joy 

1) Offer Yourself Appreciative Joy 

Appreciative joy can be practiced while you’re sitting or walking, as you reflect on the following:

Connect with yourself, here and now. Allow the things that are going well to come up. There are always things that you can be grateful for, like your good intentions, your mind, maybe your kindness or generosity. Direct the appreciative joy phrases toward yourself:

I appreciate my good qualities (name a couple of them) 

I am grateful for the good fortune in my life 

May my good qualities and fortune continue to grow. 

Notice the effects of the different phrases and choose the phrases that feel most natural to you. Take a few moments to feel the resonance of these words in your body. Carry the feeling of appreciative joy in your good qualities and good fortune into the rest of your day.

2) Questions to Explore

You may choose to do this after the first practice, or on its own. Take a few moments to reflect on your experience with appreciative joy. Here are a few reflection or journaling questions you may find useful. Trust yourself and see what you discover:

  1. What supports you in feeling appreciative joy for yourself and others?
  2. What stops you from experiencing appreciative joy for yourself and others?
  3. How can you lead with appreciative joy at home, at work, and in your community?

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