Contemplations on Joy – The Brain, Body and Community

During my career as a neuroscientist, I’ve investigated the brains of many experts – dancers, musicians, and mathematicians. As a dancer and a retreat leader, I’ve seen hundreds of people embracing the connection with their bodies, other people, and the environment. Through a collaboration with a psychiatrist, we have aimed to understand how creative movement can help people with severe mental health challenges. In this short essay, I would like to stay on the brighter side when writing about mood, and therefore, I contemplate the brain state of joy.

What is joy?

Joy is often mentioned in conversations related to wellness and travel. But what do we really mean by joy? The first thing that comes into my mind is that joy is like happiness. However, happiness has a static echo, as if we were aiming for eternal happiness, a state which never changes. In my culture, in Finland, something characteristic is a sensation of melancholic beauty. We understand melancholia as something as valuable as joy and see both states as something transient. In addition, as a neuroscientist, I know that the healthy brain is dynamic – it travels smoothly from deep sleep to highly focused concentration, and through emotions like tenderness, sadness, and empathy.

If joy is not like happiness, maybe it is like pleasure. Pleasure is transient, which would coincide with the nature of joy. However, pleasure has a part of being hedonistic wanting, which may lead to needing and down we go the rabbit hole of addictions. In the brain, pleasure activates the reward system, and we can see a sudden burst of dopamine which lights up the neurons.

Happiness or pleasure alone do not define joy. A precise description of joy could be a shared beautiful moment – a moment of connection.

Studies on shared group experiences show that we tend to tune together with people around us. In addition to tuning together on a cultural level, like through shared music or dance, also our biological processes tune together: the heartbeat, respiration, and even the brain waves. From the evolutionary perspective such biological tuning has been crucial to create strong communities, to anticipate other people’s thoughts and actions, and most of all, to survive as a member of a safe group.

The word beautiful from the shared beautiful moment brings me to think about neuroaesthetics which is a field aiming to understand the brain functions during aesthetic experiences, such as arts or nature. These studies show that no matter if we receive the aesthetic experience through hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, or touch, the same brain network activates. This network of aesthetic experience includes the reward system, as during pleasure. Importantly, in addition to reward, aesthetic experience activates the brain regions of empathy. More specifically, it activates, not the states of cognitive empathy nor emotional empathy, but the brain regions of prosocial empathy – the will to do good for other people. The will to act for the sake of other people’s wellbeing.

At the end, we are talking about a state of eudaimonia – a Greek word which can be translated as being in good inner spirit. A state in which we feel meaning and purpose. Such a state is shown to feed into life satisfaction.

About a shared beautiful moment

Can we create joy?

If joy forms a part of our life satisfaction, how can we create joy?

The quick answer is that we cannot!

Based on music studies, we know that peak emotions, such as joy, are created by music which first creates expectations, and suddenly breaks these expectations. Such an unexpected moment creates strong emotions, even chills on the skin. Indeed, joy includes a fundamental element of surprise. We cannot program ourselves or others to feel joy, neither can we force it. Rather, we can create a mental state which is open for joy.

In psychology, one of the Big 5 personality traits is openness to experience. With such a mindset, we can stay curious and open for joy, and allow joy to emerge in some unexpected moment. With an open mind, we can suddenly visit the brain state of joy – which balances our stress and feel-good hormones, and our autonomic nervous system.

Brain state of openness to joy is somewhere between the interrupted reactions and stubbornly goal-directed behavior, each of which is controlled by a specific attention network in the brain. This adaptive mental state of joy falls into the same state from which resilience, cognitive flexibility and creativity emerge. We know the horizon where we are going, but we can flexibly deal with what life throws on our way.

Wellness retreats are precious for joy for two reasons. First, the retreat setting is unique to tune in for curiosity and openness – and welcome joy, self-awareness, and new epiphanies. We can take home such a mental state of resilience and cognitive flexibility which allows us to adapt and bloom in our daily life again. Second, when the joyful moment suddenly emerges in the retreat, we can store it as a vivid memory. As brain research shows, imagination and real-life perception activates the brain in a surprisingly similar way. At home after the retreat, we can go back to those valuable memories through our imagination and feel the joy again on our faces and in our bodies.

Joy, as a shared beautiful moment, stays with us to elevate our moods far into the future.


This text is modified from the talk the author gave at the Synergy The Retreat Show at Ca Na Xica, Ibiza, Spain on October 28th 2022.

Text by Dr. Hanna Poikonen who is a retreat leader, neuroscientist and dancer. She is the founder of the WiseMotion Community and a researcher at ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Örebro University Hospital in Sweden.


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Watch below our retreat video which is part of the In Pursuit for Wellness Series by BBC StoryWorks and Global Wellness Institute.