Caring for yourself

Struggle, grief & joy can co-exist

5 minutes

Positive & negative emotions don’t cancel each other out, & you don’t have to be done with pain to make space for joy. Learn how grief & joy can co-exist.

Life’s hardest moments can bring moments of such overwhelming pain that it’s hard to imagine feeling okay again. Yet, a few hours later, you may find yourself laughing—perhaps even while tears stream down your face.

As a culture, we struggle to hold grief and joy in both hands. But positive and negative emotions don’t cancel each other out, and you don’t have to be done with pain to make space for meaning and joy. It’s common—and quite human—to feel both at the same time.

Healing happens when we’re realistic about how long our struggles may take (e.g. our grief may never be “over” even as it becomes easier to cope with over time), while staying open to the possibility of building a life of meaning, peace, and joy.

  • Tip #1
    Give yourself permission to feel joy

    During hard times, people may turn away from moments of joy. You might notice yourself doing this because:

    • Feeling happy makes you feel bad about “moving on” from something or someone important.
    • Feeling good while others are still struggling makes you feel guilty.
    • You have survivor’s guilt.
    These types of thoughts and feelings are common, but not especially fair. Having moments of joy doesn’t invalidate the depth of your pain or mean you care less about others.

  • How to do it
    • If you’re coping with the loss of a loved one, it might help to remind yourself that they cared about your happiness and would want you to feel joy again. Not just in the distant future, but today too.
    • If you’re judging yourself for feeling joy, think about how you would respond to a friend in your situation. Would you tell them they shouldn’t feel happy? Practice being as kind to yourself as you would to others.
  • Tip #2
    Notice small moments of joy

    People often associate joy with big events, like a graduation or a wedding. However, happiness can often be found in small, everyday pleasures like the smell of coffee brewing. These moments are easy to overlook when you’re sad or overwhelmed.

    Pausing to appreciate small joys alongside your struggles can make you feel happier and healthier. In one study, people who wrote about joyful experiences for three days not only felt better right away, they also made fewer visits to health centers over the next three months.1

  • How to do it

    To make a practice of noticing small moments of joy, you might:

    • Journal about one moment of joy each day. Stopping to reflect can reveal there were more good moments than you’d realized. On tough days, you can use your journal to remind yourself that you’ve had good moments and you will have more in the future.
    • Think about the best parts of your day before bed. Those might be a small win, like an unexpected compliment at work, or a simple pleasure, like the feeling of a warm breeze.
    • Pick a few times each day to break out of autopilot and bring your attention to your immediate experience. Really focusing for a moment on your favorite song or the taste of your food can turn an everyday event into a moment of real pleasure.

  • Tip #3
    Create moments of joy

    Many people feel happiest when they’re absorbed in what they’re doing, a state psychologists call “flow.” Whether it’s meditating or knitting, reading or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, chances are you already have a flow-state activity you love.

    If, for whatever reason, an old flow activity feels triggering or difficult to find pleasure in in the here and now, try doing something you loved as a kid or nudge yourself to try something new. The hard feelings might not go away, but over time, these activities can feel like a welcome distraction or a space where you feel connected to yourself again.

  • How to do it
    • Engaging in an activity at just the right level of difficulty for you is the best path into flow. Choose something challenging enough to require focus without being frustrating.
    • Make space to experience flow by blocking out time on your calendar for an activity you enjoy. Treat it like an appointment with yourself that you will keep even if you’re busy.
    • On our hardest days, our brains do a great job of convincing us nothing can be fun. To get yourself started, try setting a timer for ten minutes, with the promise that you can stop then if you want. Chances are, by the time your alarm sounds, you’ll want to keep going. If not, that’s okay. Set the activity aside and try again another day.

In any moment, joy can coexist with grief or sorrow and laughter can share space with pain. There is nothing “wrong” with you if your days are still feeling tough—you’re not a burden, you’re human. Setting the expectation that some days will be hard and others will be easier, that you can hold struggle in one hand and joy in the other, can help you navigate loss and hardship.

Other Lessons


  1. Chad M. Burton and Laura A. King, “The Health Benefits of Writing About Intensely Positive Experiences,” Journal of Research in Personality 38, no. 2 (2004): 150–63.