How the 5 Rules for Joy Can Help You Stick to Positive Change

For years, I wanted to get out of debt. We started our marriage with over $200,000 in student loan debt. The more I sat with it, the more negative I felt about it.

It wasn’t until I started applying positive psychology discoveries to my life that everything began to change.

We paid off half of our debt in just two years because of what I’ve discovered through positive psychology.

Here’s the discovery that made the difference: you can’t stick to positive change if you don’t enjoy it. 

Whenever we try to pursue positive change in our life, we naturally start from a place of negativity.

  • We hit the gym hard because we have to.
  • We go back to dating because we’ll end up alone if we don’t.
  • We pay our loans because we can’t live with the payments anymore.
  • We overwork because if we slow down, we won’t get paid.

But when we start with negativity, we end with negativity. We often yo-yo back to our life before. 

Positive change doesn’t stick because we don’t enjoy the process. 

Starting with joy is the secret to results that last.

But how can we practically enjoy our process for positive change?

5 Simple Rules for Joy and Success

The 5 Rules for Joy™ can help you stick to positive change by helping you add joy and fun to the process.

Based on recent science and discoveries in positive psychology, the 5 Rules for Joy are how you practically build a positive mindset about your circumstances. Following these rules will help you be happier and more successful when pursuing positive change.

In this article, I’ll provide you with a deep dive understanding of each of the 5 Rules and how they fit together. Starting with the first rule . . .

1. Start with Joy

Most people begin their journey for positive change from a negative mindset (“I have to get healthy or else” or “If I don’t do something soon, it’ll mean trouble”). But this negative mindset disengages our brain and makes it harder to stick to positive change. The first rule is about making a radical shift—to pursue positive change, but do so from a place of joy rather than negativity.

Why This Works:

Our brain has a natural habit of avoiding hard things. But when we avoid our hard things, we can’t stick to positive change.

When you reframe your circumstance in a positive light, however, your brain will be more motivated to engage your hard thing.

Starting with joy means reframing your circumstance in a positive way so your brain wants to engage change.

Positive change begins with a positive mind. Start with joy and you’ll undo your habit of avoidance and stick to positive change.

How This Works:

  • Starting the day by saying, “Today, I will choose joy.”
  • Creating a pros and cons list about your circumstance to highlight all the pros of change.
  • Having a conversation with your spouse about paying off your debt with joy. Reframe your situation together.
  • Writing down all the negative thoughts you have around your circumstance and reframing them.
  • Gathering your team and reframing a difficult project together. Remind them how this project will move them closer to their goal.

When you get this right, your brain will become your ally in positive change, providing you with evidence and experiences to justify your positive mindset. When you skip this, you default to negativity and give up too soon in your journey. 

2. Define Winning and Losing

The reason we keep experiencing negativity in our journey to positive change is because we do the behaviors that keep us spinning in negativity. With this second rule, you need to define the behaviors of self-sabotage as losing, and the behaviors of positivity as winning. 

Why This Works:

As humans, we are hardwired to avoid pain and approach pleasure. This is called the Law of Approach and Avoidance. 

But this mechanism is what gets us into trouble sometimes. We often escape the pain of negative emotions by moving towards a pleasure or protection measure. When this happens, we actually reinforce the stressor that caused the negative emotion (here’s an interesting study that proves this intensifying negativity). This keeps us spinning in negativity.

I call this pattern the Negativity Cycle™. 

When we define our pleasure or protection measure as losing, we trigger our brain’s “no go” response. This means, we avoid it.

When we define our healthy actions as winning, we trigger our brain’s “go” response, which means we move toward it.

With this rule, I use my emotional intelligence tools, the Negativity Cycle and the Positivity Cycle to determine what actions to avoid and what actions to do. 

How This Works:

Use the Negativity Cycle to determine your losing actions surrounding a difficult circumstance. Use the Positivity Cycle to determine your winning actions to do instead. Examples include:

  • With your debt, losing means you avoid looking at the budget and talking about your finances. Winning means you look at the budget every week and have a meeting about your finances.
  • With your marriage, losing means you never connect at the end of the night. Winning means you spend at least 5 minutes at the end of each day to connect.

When you get this right, you know exactly what actions keep you in a space of negativity, and you avoid those actions. When you get this wrong, you stay in negativity, and don’t know what you’re doing to self-sabotage your efforts for positive change.

3. Create an Instant Win

Now that you’ve started with joy and determined your winning and losing actions, where do you begin? Easy. You begin with the easiest first step.

Why This Works:

When we are motivated to make a change in our life, we can often bite off more than we can chew. When this happens, it sends us into a negative feedback loop. We think we can’t make progress in a difficult circumstance. In reality, we just did too much in the first step.

Starting with a simple first step gives us the early momentum we need to reinvest back into the process. In essence, you’re proving to yourself you can do it.

How This Works:

  • You’ve made a commitment to pay off your debt with joy. You’ve defined your winning and losing actions. Now to start, you host a garage sale or save your first $500 dollars. It’s an easy first step that makes you feel like you’ve making progress.
  • You’ve made a commitment to return to the gym with joy. You’ve defined that winning means you show up to the gym, and losing means you avoid going to the gym altogether. Your instant win might mean you have a friend show you 3 basic exercises at the gym.
  • You’ve made a commitment to parent with joy. You’ve defined that winning means you have dinner with your kids every night, and losing means you work through dinner. Your instant win might mean you take the entire family out to a dinner. 

When you get this right, you experience the joy of progress and double-down on your pursuit for success. When you get this wrong, you become demotivated before you even begin.

4. Give Immediate Rewards

There’s a reason why we engaged in our self-sabotaging behaviors for so long. They helped us escape pain and move toward pleasure. But now, we need to reward our positive actions so we stick with positive change.

Why This Works:

For the same reason we are hardwired to move toward pleasure, we are motivated by rewards. Our brain gives greater importance to short-term rewards rather than long-term rewards.

When you give yourself an immediate reward for doing your winning actions, you are providing positive reinforcement so you stick with these actions. If you haven’t been able to stick with positive actions in the past, it’s because you were missing positive reinforcement.

How This Works:

  • Everytime you look at the budget or talk about your finances (your winning action), you move a certain amount of money into a savings account (the immediate reward).
  • Everytime you date your spouse (your winning action), you post about the date on social media (sharing information lights up the reward centers of our brain).
  • Everytime you go to the gym (your winning action), you share about it in a group text with friends (the immediate reward).
  • Everytime you connect with your children (your winning action), you add a tally to a visual tally board (the immediate reward).

When you get this right, you stick with positive actions longer, and even look forward to doing them. When you get this wrong, you give up on positive actions and default to your self-sabotaging behaviors of negativity.

5. Cash in on Experiences

Cashing in on an experience means you use your progress toward positive change to invest in an experience, like going out with friends or going on a trip. This experience becomes your long-term reward you look forward to. It also makes your happiness and joy last longer.

Why This Works:

New research has revealed that experiences provide us with longer-lasting happiness and joy, before, during and after the event.

You might be tempted to use your rewards (after 10 tally marks, etc.) to buy a material item you’ve always wanted. But studies show, this will not benefit you more than an experience.

Here’s why:

  1. You anticipate experiences more. If you’re going through a low time, thinking forward to your fun experience provides you with the positive feelings to endure. Material purchases don’t do this as well.
  2. You don’t get used to it. Because of hedonic adaptation, we get used to our material purchases. They stick around long enough to not make us happy anymore. Experiences come and go, leaving us only with fond memories that increase joy.
  3. Experiences bring us closer to other people. Studies revealed that material purchases drive social comparison and experiences drive social connection. This is because people feel more included when you share your experiences with them.

How This Works:

  • After a workout, you move money into a savings account (immediate reward), then use that money to go to the spa (experience).
  • When you finish a block of productive time for work, you share it in a group text (immediate reward), and after sharing ten times, you and your friends plan a party.
  • When you and your spouse handle a tough conversation, you move money into an account (immediate reward), then use that money to go on a trip (experience).

When you get this right, you stretch out your happiness and joy to last longer and flood all aspects of your life. When you get this wrong, your happiness and joy comes and goes and never remains a stable force in your life.

The 5 Rules Fit Together

When you combine these 5 Rules of Joy together, they can help you stick to positive change and transform every aspect of your life.

Since you don’t typically engage the things you don’t enjoy, the 5 Rules of Joy help you sprinkle in bits of joy into your hard things. When you can do this, you’ll build a positive mindset about your hard things, and find greater success in life.

You do not have to let your hard things in life have the final word over your joy and happiness. If you can choose to be joyful now, you can take back control, and ultimately change your life for the better.

This is how we end up happier and more successful in life.

In my weekly Joyletter, I apply the 5 Rules of Joy to different aspects of life such as marriage, finances, work, relationships, parenting, health, etc. If you want these practical applications in your inbox, sign up for the Joyletter here

Results that last start with joy. Let’s use the 5 rules to build that positive life. 

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