“Spiritual Practices to Nurture Joy in Difficult Times: An Advent Journey”  presented by Anne Kertz Kernion   

The beautiful Advent season between the hectic pace of Thanksgiving and Christmas is upon us. Advent invites us to slow down to a more peaceful and reflective rhythm of life. Each of the four weeks of Advent is enriched by scripture and the Advent wreath ritual, which includes the lighting of one of the Advent candles.

The spirit of the third week is reflected in the words, “Rejoice always! Our God is near,” and the rose-colored candle reminds us of the joy the world experienced at the birth of Jesus. It also reminds us of our great need for Christ’s light to penetrate our world’s darkness. Our hope is God’s promise to always be with us.

Sometimes joy is hard to find—especially in difficult times. But it is possible.

Understanding how our spiritual habits affect our physical and emotional health can lead to a greater sense of joy in our lives. “Spiritual Practices to Nurture Joy in Difficult Times: An Advent Journey” is the theme of a program presented to our SSJ community. We invited Anne Kertz Kernion, the presenter, to share some suggestions on bringing joy into your Advent season.

Is it possible to nurture Joy in these difficult times? Yes! Following are a few proven ways to boost our happiness and physical, mental, and cognitive health.

Practice gratefulness: “Joy springs from a grateful heart.” ~Pope Francis

This is a key practice: Brother David Steindl-Rast recommends being grateful IN difficult situations, even though we may not be grateful FOR situations. For example, I practiced gratitude almost daily when I had COVID and couldn’t get out of bed for three weeks. How? Just by counting my blessings, which were still numerous: My husband caring for me, a warm bed, a roof over my head, and Gatorade when I could keep it down. UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center notes that regularly expressing gratitude makes us healthier and happier, changes the brain’s molecular structure, and keeps our gray matter functioning properly.

Change our language from “I have to” to “I get to.” This one-word substitution can improve our attitudes and help us to see what we have instead of what is lacking or difficult. Instead of “I have to cook dinner,” say, “I get to cook dinner.” So many people in the world would love to have a refrigerator full of food to cook.

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” ~Aesop

Pause and appreciate the ordinary. Look at the stars, your friend’s eyes, and the tree on your way to work. Breathe in the aromas of freshly baked cookies or listen to the leaves rustle in the wind. Feel the warmth of the teacup in your hands. Use “dead” time, like stopping at a traffic light or waiting in line at the store, for pausing to be grateful for your blessings. The days and years pass by so quickly, and if we use our senses to appreciate these simple gifts, we will notice them all around us. And the more we look, the more we see! Regularly practicing gratitude in this way grows Joy, leading to less depression, greater resilience, and a healthier brain.

“For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” ~ Evelyn Underhill

Spend time in nature. Research shows that spending a couple of hours a week outside will improve your overall sense of well-being and increase the joy you feel. And even looking at pictures of nature will boost your mood. If what you see elicits “awe,” like a rolling vista or shooting star, even better.

Get morning sunlight on your eyes (without sunglasses and without looking directly at the sun.) This will also help set your circadian clock, a fancy term for your wake and sleep cycles. Getting proper sleep is the key to feeling good. Take a short walk (10-20 minutes) outside within two hours of waking. Do this five days a week, and your mood will improve. I guarantee it! The movement of objects past your eyes and the morning blue light will boost your joy quotient and quiet some neural circuits responsible for stress.

Practice kindness, social connections, and service. Who in your life needs a listening ear, some baked goods, or a dinner invitation? Loneliness is an epidemic in the US, and showing kindness to another is a way to DO good and FEEL good. As a result, our oxytocin levels increase while inflammation, anxiety, and stress decrease.

As we journey into Advent, let us ponder the words of Albert Camus:
“The trance of productivity robs us of the very presence necessary for happiness.”
By adapting the Advent practices suggested by Anne, we can be signs of hope, light, and joy in the darkness of our world. It is possible to nurture joy in these difficult times.

Anne Kertz Kernion holds a BS in Environmental Engineering from Penn State University, a MA in Theology from Duquesne University, a Certificate in the Science of Happiness from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Graduate Certificate in Positive Psychology from the University of Missouri. She is an artist and the owner of Cards by Anne, an inspirational greeting card company. Anne taught Chemistry, Environmental Science, Nutrition, World Religions and Ethics at a community college and Cross-Cultural Understanding of Religious Meaning at Carlow University. Her published books include A Year of Spiritual Companionship and the award winning Spiritual Practices for the Brain: Caring for Mind, Body and Soul. She is a frequent retreat leader and lecturer to groups across the U.S. and Australia on topics combining neuroscience, positive psychology, and spirituality.
For more information on nurturing joy this Advent season, visit ssjerie.org/adventjoy.

Anne Kertz Kernion received her BS in Environmental Engineering, Penn State University, 1981, MA in Theology, Duquesne University, 1990, Certificate in the Science of Happiness, University of California, Berkeley, 2017 and Graduate Certificate in Positive Psychology, University of Missouri, 2020.  Anne is the owner/artist of Cards by Anne (cardsbyanne.com), an inspirational greeting card company founded in 1986. Anne taught “Cross-Cultural Understanding of Religious Meaning” at Carlow University. She also taught courses ranging from Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Nutrition, to World Religions and Ethics at a local community college. Her published books include “A Year of Spiritual Companionship” and “Spiritual Practices for the Brain: Caring for Mind, Body and Soul,” which won awards for the integration of health and spirituality. Currently, Anne is a frequent lecturer and retreat leader, presenting topics that combine neuroscience, positive psychology, and spirituality to groups across the US and Australia.