When local mother, wife, businesswoman and author Kaia Roman experienced the premature fizzling of her epigenetics start-up company in October of 2014, things got bad. As in, she went into a “tailspin” of depression and anxiety, and took refuge in her bed for long hours. But in the space that had once been filled with 14-hour days of screen time and molar-grinding busy-ness, a new plan hatched for her own salvation.
The seed was planted by a friend, who shared an eye-roll-inducing idea that committing to one’s own joy for 30 days could yield life-changing results. With nothing left to lose, Roman immersed herself in the challenge of seeking joy in every day. She started blogging about the mental shifts she’d begun to notice, and plunged herself into researching the science behind gratitude, mindfulness, meditation, the law of attraction, and many other concepts common to the Facebook meme. The blog eventually became a book, The Joy Plan: How I Took 30 Days to Stop Worrying, Quit Complaining, and Find Ridiculous Happiness, published by Sourcebooks, and already available at Bookshop Santa Cruz.
“I wrote The Joy Plan because it was an idea that would not leave me alone. I couldn’t stop my hands from writing it,” says Roman.
Needless to say, being the lab rat in one’s own joy-pursuing experiment worked in her favor, and she didn’t stop at 30 days. Her methods for a more joyous life are outlined in detail in the book, which reads more like an honest journey of self-discovery than a preachy prescription. It’s a personal approach that keeps the storyline just juicy enough to wash down a substantial dose of scientific research. And, despite its packaging as a self-help book, a genre some people might hide behind a New Yorker magazine at the public pool, it’s an engrossing read with one foot planted firmly in the rich soil of science.
“I’ve read a lot of self-help books and blogs that told me what to do. They told me to ‘relax,’ ‘think positive,’ ‘stay calm,’ ‘meditate,’ ‘don’t worry, be happy’—and it all sounded good in theory. But I still didn’t know how. So in The Joy Plan, I address the how,” she says.
As a preview to her upcoming book launch at the MAH on July 14, we picked Roman’s brain for some insights into the science of our blessed birthright—joy.
You distinguish between happiness and joy. How does joy differ from happiness—and why is it a healthier emotion to seek?
KAIA ROMAN: Happiness is a cognitive experience based in the brain’s cortex. It’s a state of mind, which comes and goes easily. Happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the brain’s fight or flight response—it feels exciting and stimulating to the body. Joy is a subconscious experience, an emotion based in the brain’s limbic system. Joy activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls rest and relaxation—it feels calming and soothing to the body.
Seeking joy in every moment seems like it could lead pretty quickly to overindulgence—but you define joy as being closer to the Greek concept of eudaemonia, or “human flourishing,” than to hedonism.
While the main purpose of The Joy Plan is to feel good, it isn’t just about being hedonistic. It’s about learning how to use our feelings as a feedback system. I wanted to create lasting joy, not a temporary feeling of satiety. And I didn’t want to cloud my awareness with alcohol, drugs, or other indulgences, even if they could give me a temporary high, because I wanted to be fully present to notice the signs, opportunities, and changes I was looking for.
In scientific studies, subjects who rated high on the scale for eudaemonia (which is basically a fancy Greek word for joy) also showed higher immunity and lower inflammation in their blood samples. While subjects who rated high for hedonism, on the other hand, showed the opposite.
Do you think that the desire for money and material possessions was a counterproductive mechanism to your joy?
I think that a fixation on any outcome (money, fame, possessions, or even helping people or solving the world’s problems) to the point that you no longer take pleasure in the process is counterproductive to joy. Because all that ever really exists is this present moment, anyway.
The Law of Attraction is known by many to be an “envision-it-and-it-will-come” idea, and therefore often gets dismissed as New Age nonsense. But you uncovered intriguing brain science behind the concept.
Our world responds to our thoughts and feelings. This isn’t just some woo woo spiritual idea; this is physics. In classical physics, it was believed there was a distinct difference between energy waves and energy particles. But experiments beginning in the early 1900s determined that energy changes shape depending on who is observing it—it can take the form of either a particle or a wave. Further experiments in the 1920s into this phenomenon marked the birth of quantum physics, and it has been replicated many times since, with more elaborate equipment and testing parameters. They’ve measured the smallest units of energy they can, the energy that makes up atoms, as well as larger atoms and electrons—always with the same result. We get what we expect. Other research, from the HeartMath Institute (in Boulder Creek), shows that human emotions can affect DNA, even at a distance. So if our perceptions alter physical reality, our emotions change our DNA, and our DNA morphs the particles around it—we really do have way more power to change our world than we may realize.
You identify sex as a key ingredient in your Joy Plan. How and why does sex lead to more joy?
Orgasms are amazing. They flood our brains with endorphins, reduce our cortisol levels, and induce a feeling of relaxation. Studies have shown that regular orgasms can regulate the menstrual cycle, due to a balancing effect on female hormones. Orgasms increase dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) hormone levels in the body, improving memory, brain function and even the appearance of skin. Orgasm, as well as the skin-to-skin contact in sex, increases oxytocin – often called the “love” hormone, which is actually a neuropeptide that regulates heart function, reduces cell death and inflammation, and increases feelings of love, trust, peace, and well-being. While we can experience some of these physiological benefits through exercise or cuddles with loved ones or solo sex, it’s pretty fun to share it with a partner.
Of course key ingredients for joy must vary from person to person, but can you list any others that may be universal?
I think gratitude is the fastest, easiest ticket to joy. Thoughts of gratitude release dopamine in the brain, which feels good and lowers stress. The more frequently you train your brain to focus on what you’re grateful for, the more easily your thoughts will gravitate toward optimism—thanks to the phenomenon known as neuroplasticity, in which our brains form new neural connections during repeated thoughts and experiences. And since your thoughts inform your words and actions, and your actions contribute to your experience of life, gratitude can quickly change your reality. Our brains have an inbuilt cognitive bias which predisposes us to remember negative information more readily than positive. This creates the perfect storm for fear and hopelessness. It’s easy to slip into feeling like the world is a dark and scary place, and nothing is safe or sacred anymore. But we don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. A shift in perspective can sometimes change everything. Gratitude is a powerful antidote to negativity and fear.
We’ve all been bludgeoned with the dangers of too much stress. But you came across the concept of eustress, which can actually be beneficial. How do we tell the difference?
Eustress (eu means “good” in Greek) was a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye to describe the kind of stress that activates your body to work toward a tangible goal. Eustress is a type of stress that feels more like excitement or anticipation that you can thrive on. Instead of causing your body and mind to shut down or go into fight-or-flight mode, eustress actually motivates you to get what you want.
I know that when I face a challenging event, like a disagreement with a loved one, there are two roads to go down: I can either approach the situation as a problem, or as an opportunity for growth. This distinction can mean the difference between distress and eustress.
The book reveals so much about yourself, including things like the notes you’ve taped to your mirror—things that many people would be mortified to have anyone else see. Did you have trepidation about sharing so freely?
Actually, since I never intended to write a book in the first place, and was mostly keeping track of the experience for myself, I still don’t really think about anyone else reading it.
Although I’m the furthest thing from a self-help guru, I believe in the power of words and stories to transform. And yes, I read my own book. And it really helps. The Joy Plan sits on my nightstand and is a daily practice for me. As Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you’re longing to read and you haven’t found it yet, then you must write it.” That’s why I wrote The Joy Plan—because I needed to read it.
Info: Kaia Roman launches ‘The Joy Plan’ at 7 p.m., on July 14 at the MAH. Free. More info at thejoyplan.com.