How to Work Small Moments of Joy into Your Day

Even if you have only a few minutes, you can find moments of joy in your day

My family has never struggled to find moments of joy in our lives. We’ve always had much to be grateful for—a good home in a safe neighborhood with plenty of food on the table, for starters—but when it comes to health, we’ve always come up short.

While my health is quite good, my father unexpectedly died of a heart attack when he was 39 years old, and my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in her early 60s. Last year, she began exhibiting early signs of dementia, and her hallucinations have become increasingly frequent and scary. And two years ago, my sister and I began sharing caregiving responsibilities for her, which turned out to be a full-time job on top of the full-time jobs we already have.

We’ve had to learn about Medicare (which doesn’t pay for long-term care) and apply for Medicaid (which she hasn’t been approved for yet). We handled her taxes; arranged appointments and drove her back and forth; coordinated medications with her doctors; did all her shopping, cooking and cleaning; and helped her bathe and get dressed. There was no setting boundaries—it needed to be done, so we did it.

Under all that stress, my sister and I struggled to maintain a positive attitude. We often felt sorry for ourselves, unable to focus on the many blessings we should be grateful for. Something had to change.

Finding moments of joy every day

There’s nothing I love more than going for a long bike ride or a scenic hike. Getting out in nature doesn’t just give me some much-needed work-life balance; this digital detox acts as a happiness meditation of sorts, thanks to the positive effects of exercise on emotion.

But at times, I only have five minutes free in the day. If I am lucky enough to have an hour, it may not be until after I’ve put my mom and the kids to bed, and I’m not about to head out for a hike at 10 p.m.

With that in mind, I began thinking about how to work small moments of joy into my day instead of waiting for the rare day to myself.

Recording moments of joy

The strategy I came up with was to work at least one moment of joy into my schedule every single day and to write it down in my day planner. (You can use a store-bought gratitude journal in the same way.)

In some cases, if I know which joyful moment I’ll be able to work into my day (for instance, if I know my sister will watch my mom so I can go for a hike with a friend), I’ll write it down in advance, which gives me something to look forward to. Most of the time, however, I wind up spontaneously working in a moment of joy and then recording it at the bottom of the page in my planner.

Not only does this strategy help validate my moment of joy, but my spin on gratitude journaling also allows me to look back on these happy moments. If I’m feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, it’s a nice reminder that I’ve been able to find some happiness here and there, and it also serves as good motivation for choosing happiness in the future.

Easy ways to work happiness into your day

Not only are there mental health benefits of reading, but it’s also an activity that I really enjoy. And it’s relatively easy to work into my day. If I wake up early or stay up late, I may be able to read a few chapters of my favorite mystery novel, but on a very busy day, I may get only five to ten minutes. I always keep a magazine around the house, and I bring one with me when I take my mom to appointments, so if I have the opportunity to read, I can take advantage of it.

Other times, I may call a friend and catch up while I’m folding towels or when I’m waiting for my mom to finish up in the bathroom. If I don’t have time to work out, I do push-ups on the counter while I’m waiting for my mom’s food to heat up, and if I need to pick up groceries at the farmers market, I grab a bunch of flowers for myself (and for my mom), since I’m already there.

In all these instances, I’m not trying to work more minutes into the day; I’m making the most of the time I have and working in moments of joy anywhere and everywhere possible. Here’s Deepak Chopra’s number one meditation for happiness.

Reframing sadness and frustration

One of my constant sources of stress is that my mother’s many plants are constantly dying, meaning I always have to run around the house, watering and repotting them and cleaning up the mess of dry and fallen leaves. It’s a small inconvenience, but it drives me nuts. I know my mother won’t be with us much longer, so I like to think of how caring for her plants is helping me prepare for a life without her.

As any caregiver knows, caring for a loved one is thoroughly exhausting, particularly when that person has both physical and mental disabilities. The past two years have been the most difficult period of my life. But anytime I’m feeling sorry for myself—which I will admit is quite often—I shift my mindset. I consider how lucky I am to still have my mom.

My siblings and I grew up without a father, and several of my friends have already lost both their parents. We may not have a perfect life, and I may not have mastered happiness, but my mother is still alive. And that is something to be tremendously happy about.

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Cassandra Brooklyn
Cassandra writes about travel, accessibility, and sustainability for various national publications and travel guides. In addition to Reader's Digest, her work appears regularly in National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, Sierra Club, AAA, Moon Travel Guides and Roadtrippers, as well as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Daily Beast, Forbes and TIME.
She is the author of Cuba by Bike, a cycling guidebook that premiered at the No. 1 spot on Amazon. Cassandra also founded and runs, a travel company specializing in small, ethically run group tours in Cuba, Mexico, and Jordan.