If you were asked to choose one word to describe the time we live in, what would it be? You could say stressful, intense, or exhausting—all true, sure.
As for me, I’ll go with the adjective “turbulent”. If you’ve ever flown in an airplane that encountered turbulence, you’re well acquainted with the meaning of the word. When the plane shakes and crashes from inclement weather, your adrenaline levels surge, your stomach tightens and your heart pounds.
That is an accurate description of what most of us have experienced over the past few years as we navigated pandemic-related chaos, political upheaval, and social unrest.
Let’s add one word to this discussion that we desperately need in these turbulent times: contentment. This is the quality of inner peace, calm and serenity that keeps us stable through shattering ups and downs. Is it really possible to find contentment amidst the uncertainty and turmoil of modern life? Absolutely!
As a psychiatrist for 35 years, I have counseled thousands of people struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction and many other ailments. Those who were willing to invest in the healing process experienced a deep satisfaction they did not have before.
Two basic points are important to understand.
First, happiness is an inside job. Many people long for inner peace but don’t achieve it because they’re looking in the wrong places. If you seek something external – outside of yourself – to bring satisfaction, you will seek forever. True contentment has nothing to do with what you have or don’t have; The proof lies in the fact that unhappy people can be found at every rung of the economic ladder and in every job title, investment portfolio, and collection of possessions. Real contentment has everything to do with emotional and spiritual well-being. It always comes out of you.
Second, happiness is a learned skill. Ever since I grew up in a scripture-reading home, I have always admired the perspective shared by the apostle Paul at Philippians 4:11-12:
“I have learned to be content in all circumstances. I know what it means to be needy and I know what it means to have much. I have learned the secret of being content in any situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.”
We can learn to be content in all things, no matter how severe the turmoil we encounter. We are all born needy and demanding into this world, and many people remain that way throughout their lives. But happy people understand that well-being and fulfillment come from the choices we make and the lessons we learn.
Let’s look at specific ways we can all learn to achieve happiness.
Gratitude is the antidote to every poison that comes into our lives. Put simply, gratitude fosters optimism, hope, and resilience. So it’s hard to think of a more powerful panacea than choosing to be constantly grateful.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School summarized the findings of a long-term study examining the effects of daily gratitude: “In positive psychology research, gratitude has been strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, enjoy good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”
Gratitude multiplies exponentially—the more you choose to be thankful, the more you’ll find things to be thankful for. An attitude of gratitude opens the door to experiencing the fullness of life and developing a peaceful heart. Keep a close eye on the myriad of good things you enjoy but perhaps tend to overlook. Spend time consciously cultivating gratitude and watch it improve everything in your life.
Participate in worthwhile activities
Experiencing dissatisfaction can make you forget about the activities that used to bring you relaxation and joy. A big part of healthy self-care is continuing your life-giving activities and the endeavors that energize you.
Take a moment to identify and write down five activities that bring you joy. Go to the cinema? lunch with friends? Spend a day at the museum, zoo, park or golf course? Then start planning these activities. Maintaining your enjoyment is not selfish; it is crucial to your well-being.
Dissatisfaction can make you feel isolated and alone. But around you is a healthy group of people who want to share your journey. Studies have shown that social support can help you build resilience to stress and give you practical ideas for dealing with stress and disappointment.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to a close friend, advisor or mentor for ongoing help and mutual support. Such people can also refer you to relevant resources and groups that allow members to voice their concerns and encourage one another. Supportive relationships give you a healthy outlet to process your emotions and strengthen you for the challenges ahead.
Imagine your best possible self
For the next two weeks, spend 15 minutes each day thinking about your ideal future, writing it down, and reflecting on it. Think about your goals and dreams and imagine that everything will turn out to be the very best situation. Then spend another five minutes imagining this best future life as vividly and in as much detail as possible.
This exercise is more than just a encouragement to feel good about yourself; You will retrain your mind and redirect your thoughts. A study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry showed that this exercise increased participants’ optimism.
Control your thoughts
What goes on in your head will inevitably and irrefutably be reflected in your actions, attitudes and ambitions.
Your thoughts—the messages you tell yourself every second of every day—profoundly and powerfully determine every other aspect of your life. What you tell yourself about yourself can radically affect your happiness, relationships, career, parenting, mental health, and physical well-being.
This represents a good news/bad news scenario: if your thoughts are consistently affirmative, optimistic, and constructive, your life is sure to move in a positive direction. But if your thoughts are consistently critical, pessimistic, and destructive, your life will go in a negative direction.
Holding on to pain is poison to the heart and soul. Forgiving someone who has harmed you is never easy, but working through the process will remove a major obstacle on your path to happiness.
People who seek counsel at the clinic I run are often surprised when we ask about broken or bitter relationships in their lives. They fail to see the connection between their psychological distress and their unresolved conflicts with others. But our experience has removed any doubt that holding onto insults and emotional wounds is an effective (and unfortunate) way to punish yourself. Forgiveness brings you freedom.
A growing body of social science research shows the physical and mental benefits of forgiveness.
“Whether you’re suffering from a minor hurt or a big heartache, learning to forgive those you’ve hurt can greatly improve both your mental well-being and your physical health,” says one from the American Psychological Association published article. “Research has shown that forgiveness is associated with mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety, depression and major psychiatric disorders, as well as fewer physical health symptoms and lower mortality rates.”
Optimize your optimism
A state of contentment is really a state of mind. It’s a way of looking at the world and circumstances. One of the main factors that determine this state of mind is learning to be optimistic. In a pessimistic, negative world, this can be challenging.
Fortunately, we all have access to hope and can choose hope as our dominant attitude in life. This is the mental and emotional framework that supports contentment even when the winds of negativity blow around. An optimistic attitude empowers you to live above your circumstances.
Do you know someone whose attitude is amazing despite going through terrible things? Do you know someone whose well-being seems insensitive to life’s challenges? These optimists have one thing in common: they make a daily decision to seek the good in life, even under difficult circumstances.
You too can choose to live every moment of every day with satisfaction.