Joy-First: How to Stop Living a Fear-First Existence

by | Feb 23, 2024 | Podcast

‘Instinctively we know what joy is and where to get it. . . but what does seem to evade most of those who are born into the capitalist ‘eat, sleep, shop, please, perform, produce’ lifestyle, is how to make time for it.’

– J.Nichole Smith

How do you actively pursue joy?

I’m not talking about those fleeting moments that wave over us when we least expect it. I’m talking about real. conscious. effort.

Platforming joy above all else – that’s my legacy work. And I’m pretty damn intense about it.

Because if we can pursue joy for ourselves and invest in making joy possible for others, that’s world-changing; it can help us lead fulfilling lives, build supportive communities, grow successful businesses… and suddenly, all of the world’s great big hairy scary problems can be solved.

The vision is simple: peace, ease, and freedom for all while acknowledging the massive craters we’ve already dug for all of humanity to climb out of.

I call this movement Joy-First.

Sure, maybe it all sounds a little epic, but before you brush it off as an idealist’s dream, I want you to know two things:

  1. There are BOATLOADS of research that supports this concept.
  2. I’m writing a book to prove it!

And no, you won’t have to quit your job and sell all your worldly possessions to live in a money-free commune to participate (as tempting as that may sound).

It starts with one challenge and three simple actions to help entrepreneurs, and anyone else who dares to start this journey, lead happier, healthier lives.

So buckle up as I walk you through the power that is Joy-First.

My Journey to Joy

Really, this work found me.

In 2005, I dropped out of college with just a dream, a camera, and a Great Dane puppy to my name… and a whole whack-load of student debt to boot.

I’d already been getting paid to photograph for a few years, but this is the year I got really grown-up, signed a lease, got a business license, and a bookkeeper. You know, real adult stuff.

After 6 years, I had built not one but TWO successful businesses, but I barely made it out alive. At one point I was so stressed that I had debilitating joint pain and hives all over my body.

And so, I made a beeline to the ‘anti-hustle’ school of entrepreneurship, which sent me on that incontrovertible journey for purpose – how it fuels our bodies, brains, and brands.

I dived into color theory, biophilia, self-expression, and how environments affect our ability to live in truth.

Then, 15 years in, it hit me – the stark and beautiful realization that the shapeshifter emotion I’d been chasing, studying, teaching, promoting, and advocating for the whole time wasn’t complicated.

In fact, my skills, interests, and area of expertise are all summed up by a simple three-letter-word:


Joy: The Universal Desire

More powerful than any of my own experiences in joy, is the overlap between these experiences, the research I’ve done, and the lived experiences of others.

There is one glaring truth: Instinctively, we know what joy is and where to get it.

We feel it in intimacy

We feel it in relaxation

We feel it in excitement and achievement

We feel it in nature

We feel it when we are of service

We feel it lost in the wilds of our own imagination

We feel it getting absorbed in stories

What joy is and where it comes from is not a mystery.

But in this capitalist world of “eat, sleep, shop, perform, please, produce, repeat,” finding time for joy continues to evade us.

The Radical Choice to Pursue Joy

Choosing joy is totally punk.

Because this choice fundamentally sends us in the opposite direction of what we’ve been taught is right and good, valuable and worthwhile.

Most of us in highly developed, wealthy Western societies have been programmed in individualist, exhausting, and lonely communities.

It’s “every man and woman for themselves” in a tireless pursuit of money, status, and power above all else.

We live this way out of fear.

We learn very early on in life the consequences of not having enough. Most of us watched our parents or other role models suffer in the systems that only protect those at the very top.

So we learned that achieving this idealized “success” should be the primary aim of our lives because lacking it is clearly so unsafe, unpredictable, and painful. This fear we experience in our youth convinces us it’s more important to be safe than anything else.

And so we hustle. And sacrifice. And seek security by any means.

We live fear-first.

But one thing I’ll promise you – there’s always a breaking point. A “now what?” when these ultra-successful folks reach this pinnacle of wealth and still feel worthless.

Where is the space for trying new things, for joy, for LIVING if safety is all that matters?

Spoiler alert: there is none. This way of life has nothing to do with joy; it’s all survival.

To break this cycle we have to do something radical. Something positively unseemly.

We need to put Joy-First.

The good news – joy isn’t something you have to earn through struggle or strife. Joy is already yours to claim.

Defining Joy-First: Joy in Action

Joy-First is doing it your way instead of the blending-in way, the fun option instead of the practical one, the colorful patchwork couch instead of the gray one.

It’s being present in your life instead of ruled by the anxiety of “what if?”

It’s prioritizing joy, even when it feels hard, scary, or foolish.

Here are a few ground rules to catch you up:

  1. Joy does not mean spending more money all the time – If you’re a chronic over-spender, it could be finding joy in savings or delaying gratification. If you save out of fear, it could mean a weekly splurge on fresh-cut flowers or the good cheese.
  2. Joy does not equal hedonism – There is no shame in pleasure, though joy is often found after a meaningful challenge. Think of the joy you get at the top of a hard hike, achieving something that felt near impossible at the bottom of the mountain. Don’t mistake putting joy first with never challenging yourself.
  3. Joy is not about being happy all the time – This is not some toxic positivity hubbub. Joy and happiness are not even the same thing. Happiness is a feeling, Joy is an emotion. Joy includes feeling a wide range of feelings – not all of which are fun. In fact, the emotion of Joy is something we can feel even when we’re not happy. We can crash our car and experience emotional and physical pain, while still feeling an immense swell of joy in being grateful we survived the crash. We can feel joyful and more, honoring both at once.
  4. Joy isn’t always equal access – The starting point for accessing joy easily and regularly isn’t an equal playing field. There are plenty of mental, physical, and emotional complications that can make Joy pretty much unavailable. But don’t brush off the benefits of a Joy-First life just because it doesn’t sound possible for you right now. Despite the forces working against you, I encourage you to hold on to hope and take the steps. Steps towards well-being that allow you to get to a place where joy feels possible. It’s a deeply healing force.

The Challenge: Start Your Joy-First Journey

Ready to put in the work? The simple challenge to get you started on your Joy-First journey is to choose it.

Make Joy-First a habit.

It sounds simple, but it’s powerful. And like any new habit, it will take practice and repetition to make it more automatic.

I practice Joy-First through three, repeatable actions:

1. Start the day with joyful intention

Have you seen the movie Inside Out with all the anthropomorphized emotions? The main character is Joy. She runs the show (until things start to go awry).

Imagine starting each day with Joy at the controls. She’s guiding how you think, act, react, and the choices you make.

Decide first thing when you wake up who you’re going to be, and how you’re going to show up today. Is today a Joy-First day? Declare it. “Today I choose to live Joy-First.” Now you’re committed. You’ve kicked fear off the controls and joy is in charge.

I often journal because I feel writing it down has more power. I incorporate this with writing my weekly and monthly goals along with where I’m at now. This act is my anchor, keeping my perspective and focus where I want it.

2. Find the joy in the shit stuff

This step is one part resilience, one part reframing, and one part making a conscious choice.

When I’m experiencing fear, frustration, or indecision, I have developed the habit of asking myself, “Where is the joy here?” I give myself a beat, then choose.

When stuck in traffic, feeling annoyed by the incompetent people around you, stressed in a situation beyond your control, and wanting to ‘shift gears’ not to be so high-strung and entitled about something petty, this is when you act.

Take a breath and ask yourself, “Where is the joy here?” Look for the silver lining, look for gratitude, and look for ways this could be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.

In situations you have no control over, these are prime times to do what my mom would call an “attitude adjustment.” For the sake of yourself and everyone around you, anchor into joy instead of anxiety, victim mode, or just plain bitchy-ness.

3. Follow through with the joyful option

Richard Branson has this saying, “The brave may not live forever, but the cautious never live at all.” This mentality pretty much sums up his risk-heavy career in life and business (often to the horror of his colleagues and partners) – you win some, you lose some, but better to leave it all on the table than live a half-life.

While I’m a bigger risk-taker in business than many, I’m still working on letting go of control and being brave enough to do things that feel joyful but still seem a bit too scary. That used to include things like getting tattoos, wearing a bathing suit in public, or going on three-day wilderness backpacking trips, which I now do unreservedly.

There’s been progress, but it’s still a journey.

When making a decision – big or small – ask yourself a question that will weed out fear-based decisions… Here are a few of my favorites:

  • What would be easy?
  • Which one is joy? Which one is fear?
  • Will this bring me joy?
  • What would the opposite of fear be?

Then, tune in to your body. Your body never lies.

The option that makes you feel lighter, more expansive, and excited – that’s the joyful answer. It may require some extra time, support, effort, or insurance (see: sensible risk-taking) but the key is to not let the complexities or annoying details of it negate the joy.

That my friends, covers your first steps to choosing joy. Am I crazy enough to believe that it will offer earth-shattering, soul-altering, blindingly beautiful benefits to your life?

Yes. Yes, I am.

If you want to learn more about the Joy-First movement, make sure to tune into this week’s episode of Joy Color Impact (& Dogs).