Choosing Joy in Difficult Times

Dawn Barton humorously calls herself a ‘Joyologist’—a discipline where ‘we look for joy in the most unfriendly, unlikely, inhospitable places’
June 24, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020

All of us experience painful events in our lives, but it’s how we overcome and grow from those experiences that defines us. Dawn Barton, 50, has gone through more traumatic experiences than most of us can imagine, yet she’s chosen to live a life of joy.

Tragedy and Pain

In 1992, Barton lost her 9-month-old daughter to a rare bacterial pneumonia after the girl nearly drowned in a bathtub when she slipped from the child-safety ring. Just six months after her daughter passed away, a man broke into her house and sexually assaulted her. The passing of her daughter put an incredible strain on her relationship with her husband, as they grieved in different ways, and they divorced shortly afterward. Unfortunately, the hardships would hardly end there.

The book
Dawn Barton’s book “Laughing Through the Ugly Cry: … And Finding Unstoppable Joy.” (Ashley Cochrane)

At age 41, Barton was diagnosed with stage-three triple-negative breast cancer, while her second husband was deployed on active duty with the Navy in Bahrain. Not long after, her mother suffered a brain aneurysm and spent a month in the intensive care unit. Two years later, her younger sister was also diagnosed with breast cancer; she unexpectedly died in her sleep three years ago.


Barton initially lost her faith after her daughter’s passing, but over time, she regained it and was able to find joy even in difficult situations. She realized she could grieve, but then she felt she had to choose to seek joy.

These days, she humorously calls herself a Joyologist: “That’s a scientific discipline (founded by myself) where we look for joy in the most unfriendly, unlikely, inhospitable places. You wouldn’t believe where joy can grow and survive. I’ve seen it for myself, in my own story,” she wrote in her book, “Laughing Through the Ugly Cry: … And Finding Unstoppable Joy.”

I had the opportunity to speak with Barton about how to find joy even in life’s most painful times.

The Epoch Times: What are some easy steps for dealing with life’s ups and downs?

Dawn Barton: The first thing is truly just making that choice to make one little step, whether it be as simple as getting out of the bed in the midst of heartache, but it’s a choice to find something good. The next thing for me is I started making a list of things that made me joyful. I called them triggers.

Positive triggers and negative triggers, and I started writing down both so that I knew when something was a negative trigger to me that I would combat it with this list of joyful things. It was something as simple as writing down colors that I loved. It was putting together a playlist that I loved. I love flowers, so I would just go to the grocery store and pick up some flowers. In finding these places, I was really grateful.

Really if you sit down and you start thinking about things that you’re grateful for, especially in the midst of what we’re going through, it really does change your focus.

Dawn Barton believes finding joy in life involves taking small first steps. (Courtesy of Dawn Barton)

The Epoch Times: How is joy possible even when it seems like everything is going wrong in life?

Ms. Barton: I think that joy is always around us. So here we are in the midst of people having to be quarantined and then we have all of this racial unrest going on, but in the midst of things that feel so hard there is still joy to be had. The stories of the love that happens—I do believe that light always shines through in these really dark times. People rise up and we see the best in people, and that’s the joy that happens in the midst of these hard times. You can choose to focus on what’s really hard or you can choose to search for those kinds of stories.

The Epoch Times: Why are belly laughs and ugly cries two of life’s greatest gifts?

Ms. Barton: I have experienced more joy than I think most people ever will because I’ve probably experienced more pain than most people ever will. I think they go hand in hand a little. To appreciate the belly laughs of life when you have that comparison level of what the ugly cries are—what deep pain is—you can recognize unbelievable goodness and joy at just a profoundly beautiful level. You have to be grateful for both.

The Barton family
Dawn Barton (C) with her family. (Ashley Cochrane)

The Epoch Times: Why is it important to overcome your pain and find joy?

Ms. Barton: We were not created to be on this earth to sit around and watch Netflix all day long, although I’m particularly good at it. We are not created to sit and eat ice cream and watch Netflix. We are created to make a difference, and making a difference doesn’t mean you’re doing something huge.

Making a difference sometimes is as simple as going out and smiling at another person. It’s reaching out to a friend. We are not created to live in a place of sadness and devastation or self-wallowing. That’s not why we are here. I mean, what a sad existence that would be if we all stayed in that place rather than making a choice to do good, to spread joy, to get out there and make a difference.