Cultivating & Choosing Joy

By Mandy Cloninger

Joy was a means to an end — a way to transition. Joy was a focus, a simple way to have a purpose but to not do what I typically do: over-schedule, focus on productivity, achieve some new goal and then burn myself out, only to repeat the same cycle again.

It was the first December in my 20-year nonprofit and fund-raising career that I would not be watching the end-of-year gifts accumulate and comparing them with budget. I would not be at my desk or phone comparing each gift against the expectations, last year’s giving and evaluating my own worth in comparison to how the calendar year incoming dollars totaled.

I felt lighter. I began to choose things to bring me joy. I said no to things that would not bring me joy. I chose to delay and punt to another time if I wasn’t sure it would bring me joy. It was a centering experience. It gave me complete agency over my time and my schedule. Well, not complete agency, I still have a four-year old and a 20-year old, friends and framily, and Christmas and New Year’s would come like they do every year as well!

But it felt like I was in the driver’s seat to create joy-filled days and experiences. So what did cultivating joy help me learn?

My sense of accomplishment and achievement-oriented nature shows up in choosing joy. I gain a sense of accomplishment and joy from a lot of activities: reading or finishing a book, writing a piece of work, working towards larger goals, and learning something new.

I enjoy a lot of very simple things that bring me joy: food, especially Wright’s cake and Christmas cookies, movies, books, yoga, being outdoors in nature, creating and sharing a meal with my friends and family.

Reading remains one of my favorite joy-filled experiences. I am naturally restless. I like to be moving and doing something. Much like when I was a child, it’s still one of the only things that keeps me still, calm, and I feel like I actually rested. I read about six books in December – I think. I’m often reading more than one book at a time and not always great at tracking. I loved Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s: The Signature of All Things. I chose to read rather than do so many other things in December. I actually fell into a pattern if I was struggling with what might bring my joy, instead of my to-do list, my e-mail or checking social media, I read. I read that Warren Buffet spends half his time reading. If it works for him, it works for me too. If we’re reading, we’re learning.

My four-year-old daughter, Luna, brings me a lot of joy, and spending time with her is a gift. It’s also very hard sometimes. It is also a gift to ask for help with her and have her go play with a friend, her dad or go to a morning of camp. 

After a recent bike ride downtown to the park, I caught Luna rolling down a hill without me! I did teach her that and now she’s doing it all on her own and making new friends. I felt the sting, the knowing that I was already missing out on so much with her.

Honestly, I didn’t expect Luna to prevail so heavily in my decisions around joy, but she has. It has brought a lot of clarity to my big three. My number one is family adventure! We seek adventure every day. Though adventure for us is often cultivated in a lot of small moments, rituals and daily practices.

Fun has shown up a lot while cultivating joy this month! We’ve baked. Created ornaments from construction paper and pom poms. We’ve biked. Played with her new dollhouse. Snuggled on the couch watching movies. Napped together. 

I’ve taken more than one nap! It’s a miracle. I didn’t even know it was possible.

I didn’t feel the guilt when Luna was sick one day, and I just stayed home with her. It was a messy, vomit-filled day. So much laundry. But, as I held her, stroking her hair and back, I thought, she’s not going to let me do this forever. She’s growing so fast. 

I’m savoring this time with her. If we don’t do the things that bring us joy now, when will we? We love family adventure. We went to Michigan to see snow! We sledded! We made ice cream snow. We made a snowman. We played with our friends in the snow. We shopped.

Snow angel = joy!

I would catch myself noting moments of joy and pausing to write them down throughout the day, but I also paused at the end of the day, every day, looking back and reflecting on the day, and I added some more moments of joy.

Choosing to find joy-filled moments even when there is vomit everywhere, you’re on the fifth load of laundry and the delivery of bleach wipes isn’t quite there, is a leap, but it’s easier to see the moments when you’re not in the middle of the hard stuff. When she’s asleep, for example.

Joy is a choice. It can be a daily choice. It can be an in the moment choice.
It can become a mindset.

It can be deciding do I laugh right now or just hang on to being frustrated from 10 minutes ago?

I also can choose to keep chasing and cultivating joy every day, and I have, my joy journal continues!

Joy Journal: Decembercheck out the moments that had me filled with joy day-by-day

Dec 1

Hair cut and color

Wrights alpine cake and banana bread

Dec 2

Day of fellowship: three colleagues and happy hour party

Read my book for an hour when interview canceled

Ate cake!

Dec 3 

Volunteered at Trinity Cafe

Lunch w/ a few inner circle peeps at Bamboozle

Dinner and drinks w Cindy & Jeremy

Dec 4

Movie w Judy: C’mon C’mon

Wrapped Christmas presents

Dec 5

Setup and organized home office

Finished the Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert – such a beautiful read!

Dec 6



Zoo w/ Luna

Dec 7

Wrote and organized/read all my work

Watched the voice during my lunch break and sang along 

Repaired and cleaned Alyssa’s car for her

Spin class – walk this way singing out loud!

Salmon meal – yummy!

Dec 8

Attended Tampa Bay Chamber Lunch with my LT11 Classmates, many of whom I had not seen during the pandemic – socializing and building relationships

Girl’s night dinner

Cats with April

Dec 9

Luna sick and vomiting

Snuggled and held her

Tons of laundry

Drank some wine

Winter clothes from Kelley

Packed for trip!

Dec 10

Travel day!

Luna running through airport – walking sidewalk, escalator and excellent traveler

Dec 11

Wow! Where’d all that snow come from! Luna’s reaction to seeing snow for the first time when we woke up!

Luna sliding, climbing, big snow piles to play in!

Making dinner for Jenni and the girls

Dec 12

Luna and Billie – lambs at church – wild sheep!

Joy this weeks theme of advent

Hallelujah Christmas song 

Kitch iti Kipi – big spring, 45 degrees year round

Big Spring – boat, snow, ducks w/ Rick & Sheila

Big Spring Tavern 

Dec 13

Sledding w Luna and Billie

Yoga w Katy & Jenni

Beers at Shutes saloon

Dec 14

Making Christmas Crack w/girls

Park and Luna sledding on her bootie because we didn’t have the slide and she found a hill with snow

Christmas tree and magic


Dec 15

Finished One by One – Ruth Ware, thriller murder

Tried a pastie 

Shopping w/Luna in downtown Houghton

Dinner w/ the Holmes

Dec 16

Craft time w Luna & Billie – made ornaments

Took a nap

Read the Christmas Pig by J.K. Rowling

Dec 17

Interview and writing wow! time

Balloons w/ Billie & Luna

BAT sandwich and beers in the cold snowy day

Sledding at playground w Luna

Dancing w/ Jenni

Dec 18

Sledding w/ Luna

Reading The Impossible First – staying up late to read 

Dec 19

Sledding w Luna at big hill w Jack & Billie

Fitz’s for lunch on Lake Superior

The vastness and beauty of Lake Superior

Dec 20

Travel day (in contrast to joy of travel to!) – quite a bit long and frustrating

Chick-fil-A shakes


Dec 21

Body flow

Lunch w/ Jamie & Vicki

Watched a movie while Luna napped and finished it after bedtime: CODA

Dec 22

Snuggling w Luna to watch a movie

Walking on Riverwalk w/ Jeremy & Luna

Dec 23

Baking w/ Luna, April & Gavin’s family

Christmas lights w/ Brad & Luna

Dec 24

Putting together Luna’s dollhouse and conquering that 65-step project including the elevator!

Christmas Eve service

Dinner w/ the family

Santa magic

Dec 25

Magic of Christmas w/ Luna 

Took a nap

Made dinner – only the things we love to eat at Christmas – nothing extra!

Snuggled w/ Luna and fell asleep on couch watching Christmas movies

Dec 26

Played with unicorns and dollhouse w/ Luna – a lot!

Sent birthday invite out

Worked on blog – frustrating not quite yet joyful

Dec 27

Took Luna to Doublemint camp – asked for help babysitting since Luna’s out of school

Worked on blog site all morning!

Biked on Riverwalk w Luna

Dec 28

Finished blog site and sent to inner circle for feedback – joy in accomplishing a small goal!

Felt some flow for a bit writing and with blog!

Took Luna to the park

Dec 29

Zoo day w Gavin & Mackenzie & Luna

Got wet on roaring springs w/o a change of clothes for anyone! 

Dec 30

Yoga w Lisa @ Y

Wrote all afternoon 

Said yes to Karen asking for Luna to come over and play! 

Dec 31

Fort Desoto beach w/ Luna

Byblos for dinner

Published by mcloninger

Mandy Cloninger, CFRE, is a nonprofit thought leader, charismatic spokesperson, and a results-driven executive. With 20 years of experience raising hundreds of millions of dollars, cultivating transformational relationships with diverse constituencies, she has built capacity, scale, and scope in higher education, health care, and community-based nonprofits. She is passionate about social justice and humanitarian work internationally and at home. Mandy Cloninger is also a writer, public speaker, leader and faith seeker. Her journey and travels often bring inspiration to write, think and dream new dreams. Mercy & Meadows is a writing project inspired by a camping and hiking trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2021.

5 thoughts on “Cultivating & Choosing Joy

  1. I love that quote on joy being a choice. Because we definitely have the power of choice if we stay in this moment. And the quickest way out of rumination is by taking action. All these things are interconnected, and it’s up to us to take the little steps to get there.

    Your post was a great reminder of that. So thanks for sharing!


  2. Mandy,
    Enjoy reading your M&M. Lina’s 4; so right you are they do grow up fast. Someone said “you’re about as happy as you choose to be”; so I believe you’ve on the right path with JOY!


  3. This is Beautiful. It reminded me as tears filled my eyes when I had a Mother Before leaving me Five years ago in the hospital moving to Oregon state Never to return to get me as I was deemed terminally I’ll.
    I see so much joy in your journal, and you will receive more once you keep moving forward on the things that make you happy. I appreciate this, bc it reminded me to keep going strong as long as it makes Me smile My heart smile, and not have a care of what others say nor think of me.


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