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I spent a week trying the global ‘joy project’ challenge of micro-acts that bring happiness. Here’s what I learned

August 27, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC
woman walking at beach
Micro-acts of joy can boost your mood and feelings of hope, delight, and pride.
Westend61—Getty Images

In full transparency, I had no idea what a micro-act of joy was before last week. But I thought I would give UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s Big Joy Project a shot anyway. 

Our culture loosely tosses around the word joy so often—I even remember teachers I had growing up commenting on whether people seemed joyful or not in class, as if it’s something you were or weren’t. A 2019 New York Times article featuring Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of “Joyful:The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” defines happiness this way: “If you string together enough moments of joy, maybe you can have a happy life,” she said. She sees joy as instances of “delight,” something more attainable in everyday life, and worth striving toward. 

If joy is the first step to happiness, then I wanted to try to find more of it. And after this week, I see joy as wonder and hopefulness, warmth and calm, and even grounding and perspective-shifting. 

Nearly 14,000 people from 156 countries across the globe have participated in the Big Joy Project, which consists of doing seven days of seven micro-acts of joy, designed by researchers as a response to the film Mission Joy. The goal? To bring more joy into your life and give you practical tools for times of distress. The individualized program deciphers which micro-acts of joy may be most effective for you by the end of the week. For the researchers on the program, this type of investment couldn’t be more timely.  

“We have striking levels of mental health challenges … so many contextual factors right now that are really making it more difficult for people to just experience joy in their lives or to see themselves as joyful or their lives as joyful,” says Dr. Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. 

These micro-acts are accessible ways to feel sparks of joy—not a fix-all to replace other mental health interventions.

Each day, the program prompts you to rate your feelings of delight, pride, or hope and then your feelings of distress, sadness, or anger from not at all to a lot. It allows you to adjust the scale before and after you partake in the micro-act and prompts you to check in each evening. In preliminary evaluations, overall well being improved roughly 23% after the week from the individual’s baseline when they started the week. After completing just their first micro-act of joy, roughly 65% of people reported having a “positive emotional stance” right after the exercise and 63% reported having less of a “negative emotional stance”.

Everyone’s background, life stories and inherent personality traits draw them toward different types of micro-acts of joy, the researchers on the program tell Fortune, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for happiness. 

I found myself gravitating toward the days of reflection at first. For example, one day I listened and watched a roughly 5-minute meditation on “awe,” following landscapes across the globe and listening to serene music. I completed the act from my office desk and immediately began thinking far beyond my to-do list and even found myself wanting to plan my next adventure. I didn’t think one video would be able to work any magic, but at least during and after, I felt calmer and overall more optimistic. I suppose that is joy? 

Another day asked me to reflect on what I’m grateful for, another way to step out of my day-to-day thoughts and feel appreciation. I was forced to recenter my thoughts and reflect on the people I care for and opportunities I’ve had. I have participated in gratitude practices before through journaling but never committed to it consistently. It doesn’t diminish what you’re going through, but it made me feel a “yes, and,” type of way—you can have a stressful day and be grateful for your health, or your family. It’s not one or the other. 

One day even had me reframe a difficult situation from the past, looking instead at what I gained from it rather than what I lost. This micro-act encouraged people to find a silver lining. I struggled a bit with this because not everything has a perfect explanation, but it did make me think of the way things turned out, even years later, after the challenge and made me feel more strength in the moment.  

“This is the emotional illusion that we’re susceptible to—over-prioritizing moments of unpleasantness,” Simon-Thomas says. “Shifting your perspective is an exercise in looking at those difficult moments from a high vantage point, and reimagining how this unpleasantness might be a catalyst for some growth, or some new learning, or perhaps a positive outcome.”

I found it interesting to pair these more reflective acts with some of the outward-facing acts the days required. One had me perform acts of kindness. I decided to implement this on my weekly run to a breakfast shop by my apartment. Instead of rushing out, I decided to ask the woman who managed the store her name, something long overdue, and thank her for being a great routine source of excitement for me each week. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take much effort at all to show kindness to others, and incorporating that in your day can make you feel joy. It even forces you to slow down—smell the roses so to speak—and think about the people who you interact with everyday. Consider asking someone their name, even telling them you appreciate what they do. Moreso, it makes you feel connected more intimately to the world around you even in a small way, something we’ve lost during the pandemic and with remote work. 

“It’s not about excessive material resources. It’s not about money,” Simon-Thomas says. “It has much more to do with our sense of connection with each other, our capacity and willingness to invest in our relationships, and to contribute to our communities.” 

The program informed me that acts of kindness along with the more meditative acts worked well for me—and maybe I did feel 23% better at the end of the week. 

These acts didn’t fix my day’s stress or the worries and challenges I face. It will take time to work through those, but they did help me feel more at ease in the moment, making me wonder about the lasting impact of incorporating these acts in my day more routinely. 

And I’m quite embarrassed to admit that—even though it only takes seven minutes a day—I found myself struggling to fit the acts in. Maybe that’s a sign of how little I’ve been prioritizing finding joy. Because once I dove in, I didn’t regret it.  

“We haven’t been prioritizing this as a society,” Simon-Thomas says. 

Even though my test run is over, I am committed to remembering the acts I resonated with most and trying to incorporate one every day, however small.