It’s hard to kick this episode off without thinking of that old Sunday School song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Where? Down in my heart!”

Joy is that feeling of great pleasure and happiness that fills us in a more lasting way than a situational happiness. It’s something we believe can be a huge blessing in marriage so we want to help you figure out how to start increasing the joy you feel today.

Joy is considered one of the six “basic emotions”, capable of being felt, expressed and recognized by anyone, regardless of culture. In case you were wondering, the others are sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust.[i]

I call these primary emotions: what they look like may vary from culture to culture: e.g., think of how sadness is expressed in our culture vs. in some African cultures. Ours is fairly reserved and silent wherein some African cultures there is a very vocal, collective wailing when expressing sadness. Yes, there is this primary emotion but it may look different for different cultures. Joy is one of those primary emotions.

Happiness vs. Joy

Happiness and joy are sometimes thought of as the same. But research, philosophy, and literature often describe happiness as something temporary, to be chased after and experienced, while joy is something deeper and more long lasting[ii]. People often talk about “finding happiness” but being “filled with joy”. Happiness is more situational: some things make you happy and some things make you unhappy. Joy is something you carry with you and bring into situations so that you can have joy even in unpleasant circumstances[iii].

One verse in the Bible that really points out the deeper nature of joy is Romans 14:17 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (ESV). I think this underscores the point that it’s not so much a momentary experience … like, wow, that was an awesome supper, but more of an abiding experience that is grounded deep within the human soul.

Joy in Your Genes?

The depth to which it is rooted in our being is something that has even caught the interest of geneticists. Research shows that there may be a genetic component to long-term happiness. People are said to have “baseline” level of joy determined by their personality, genes or upbringing. Their daily levels of happiness can go up and down from here but will naturally return to this baseline level[iv].

Research also suggests that as much as 50% of your overall level of joy (lifetime happiness) is accounted for by your personality and genetics. Only 10% is related to your circumstances, and 40% is to do with the activities you choose to take part in[v]. I’m not sure how they arrived at those figures but this means that some people will naturally find it easier to experience joy than others.

However, it is possible to increase your baseline level of joy, through developing positive personality traits and engaging in activities that increase your happiness, which we’ll look into in a moment. When you do so, your daily variations in happiness will all revolve around this new fixed point. So your happiness levels will be higher regardless of circumstances.

In other words, we arrive with a certain baseline but we can still move the needle. And if you could move the needle on your joy starting from today, how would that impact your marriage?

Increasing Joy

Let’s now look at exactly how you can have more joy in your marriage. There are a few things to consider.

Attentiveness Impacts Joy

A study in 2000[vi] assessed 43 couples to find out what were the biggest factors affecting their long-term levels of joy. Two of the strongest predictors of joy were:

  1. Expressions of fondness
  2. Awareness of and attentiveness to the marriage and to the needs of your spouse

So those are two great things to start working on in your marriage right away.

Friendship Stimulates Joy

One of the biggest reasons to be joyful in life is a happy, passionate marriage. A healthy marriage increases joy and life satisfaction overall, but lifelong happiness is twice as high in married couples who are also best friends as it is in other couples[vii]. Day-to-day and lifelong joy are also impacted by your spouse’s sense of humor: humor that is playful and benign (ie not sarcastic or mean) and refers to shared experiences can increase levels of joy felt in the marriage[viii].

Finding Joy in What Really Matters

If you are thinking this joy thing is something you’d like to work on, we have a bonus guide for our Patreon supporters that helps you brainstorm a short-term, instant-gratification plan as well as a longer-term strategy for transforming your marriage by increasing the amount of joy you feel. If you would like a copy of this you can get one by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

A study in 1998[ix] found that being involved in work and personal projects which fit with who you are as a person creates a sense of purpose and meaning for your life. This isn’t the same as simply doing well in life: it’s about working towards things that matter to you personally.

This integrity is strongly linked to higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. The most important aspect of this meaning is consistently being yourself: “Just as a book becomes meaningful when its characters and themes are coherently related, the defining characteristic of personal meaning is consistency among the multifarious elements of the self[x]“.

They also note that being supported in these goals and personal meaning projects is a strong predictor of life happiness[xi]. So spouses should definitely try to support each other’s personal goals and aims, or better yet have shared goals you can work on together.

Virtues Impact Joy 

A study in 2005[xii] found that practicing certain “virtues” or positive mental traits can lead to lifelong contentment and happiness. These include:

  1. Forgiveness
  2. Gratitude
  3. Self-reflection
  4. Optimism

Those all look like good things to have in your marriage, right? Working on these attributes within your marriage will increase your personal wellbeing, as well as making your marriage much happier.

Don’t Chase After the Wrong Things

Finding joy is also about what you’re not prioritizing and chasing after. Many people think that having more money, more possessions and a better lifestyle will increase the joy in their lives.

But does money actually make you happy? Not really. Research shows that lack of money can make it harder to be content in life, but once a basic level of income has been reached, money has no more effect on life satisfaction[xiii].

Increases in wealth can create a temporary boost to happiness but have little effect on lasting joy. Wealth can even become an obstacle to happiness because you quickly get used to the level of money you have and start to desire more, so you end up never being satisfied[xiv].

So it’s a good self-check to make sure we have our sights set on the things that really do impact joy — not just following what the marketing world wants us to think will lead us to joy!

What Are the Benefits of a Joy-Filled Marriage?

Having more joy in your life is a good thing in itself! But high levels of joy and contentment with your life have a range of other benefits, including[xv]:

  1. More friends, more intimate relationships and greater social support (due to being more optimistic, easier to get on with and more fun to be around)
  2. Better ability to cooperate and work together
  3. Being more productive at work and at home, and higher income
  4. Having more energy
  5. Having greater self-control
  6. Better ability to cope with challenges
  7. Stronger immune system and longer lifespan
  8. Being more charitable and more willing to put spouse’s needs first

Joy. Don’t leave home without it.


[i] A. Ortony and T. J. Turner, “What’s Basic about Basic Emotions?,” Psychological Review 97, no. 3 (July 1990): 315–31.

[ii] Meylysa Tseng et al., “‘ Searching for Happiness’ or” Full of Joy”? Source Domain Activation Matters,” in Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, vol. 31, 2005, 359–70.

[iii] Tseng et al.

[iv] Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.,” Review of General Psychology 9, no. 2 (2005): 111–31,

[v] Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade.

[vi] Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, John M. Gottman, and Sybil Carrere, “The Baby and the Marriage: Identifying Factors That Buffer against Decline in Marital Satisfaction after the First Baby Arrives,” Journal of Family Psychology 14, no. 1 (March 2000): 59–70.

[vii] Shawn Grover and John Helliwell, “How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness” (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2014),

[viii] Melissa Johari, “Humour and Marital Quality: Is Humour Style Associated with Marital Success?,” Theses and Dissertations (Comprehensive), January 1, 2004,

[ix] I. McGregor and B. R. Little, “Personal Projects, Happiness, and Meaning: On Doing Well and Being Yourself,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74, no. 2 (February 1998): 494–512.

[x] McGregor and Little.

[xi] McGregor and Little.

[xii] Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.”

[xiii] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Reprint edition (London: Penguin, 2012).

[xiv] Richard A. Easterlin, “Explaining Happiness,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 19 (September 16, 2003): 11176–83,

[xv] Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change.”