We all want to be happy. This basic human desire fuels our lives. We invest significant effort in its pursuit, striving for the perfect spouse, a rewarding career, a beautiful home, the appreciation and respect of others — whatever we believe will deliver the fulfillment we seek. With all the right factors in alignment, we’ll be happy, right?
This common belief pervades our culture. Yet we’ve all heard stories of people with all the outer trappings of happiness who are miserable inside. Then there are those who face difficult challenges or live with very little and are deeply content.
New research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience has shown that contentment is actually an inside job – a skill to be developed, an attitude to be cultivated. These steps can help you encourage positive emotions and build greater resilience even when the external circumstances of life don’t cooperate.
1. Want what you have.
In any given situation, we can choose to focus on what’s lacking or what we’re grateful for and appreciate. Contentment or discontent naturally follows based on the choice we make.
You can experiment with the effects for yourself. Recall a few of the blessings of your life, however small or common, and notice the effects on your body and mind. You might notice that your body relaxes as a pleasant emotion arises. A smile might come to your face. Now consider something you’re unhappy about or wish to be different. How do your responses differ? Where does each rank on the happiness scale? Which would you like to have more of? If it’s happiness you seek, the choice really is yours.
The effects of gratitude can accumulate with a daily practice – whether you take a few moments’ pause to reflect at the start or end of your day or write down your blessings in a gratitude journal. Robert Emmons, author of “Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier,” says grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent, and lead to more energy and better sleep.
2. Be kind to yourself and others.
Kindness begets kindness. It’s a contagion of the healthiest kind, and it feels good – for the person who extends it and the one on the receiving end. Kindness cultivates good will, connections between people and an open mind that’s more at ease.
Most of us are quite adept at thinking harshly of others and ourselves, with harmful effects. The next time you find yourself in a judging frame of mind, take a moment to pause and note the effect your negative thoughts have on your sense of wellbeing and on your sense of connection with others. Then let those thoughts go and replace them with kindness. Try giving yourself and others the benefit of the doubt, and recognize that we all just want to be happy even though our actions may be misguided at times. Most of the time we are all doing the best we can.
3. Give yourself downtime for play and relaxation.
Being an adult is serious business, or so we’ve been led to believe. We’re constantly in push mode – to excel at work, with kids, with parents and family, within our communities. We’re so busy striving to achieve the happiness we seek that little time is left for enjoyment. Yet, research shows that play and relaxation are actually good for creativity, health and wellbeing – and that adds up to happiness. So as you’re filling up your 2016 calendar with appointments and obligations, be sure to add in a balance of play dates – not just your kids but for you, too.
4. Practice mindfulness.
None of these practices are possible without mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to focus awareness in the present moment and become aware of our current state of mind and emotion. Most importantly, it empowers us with choice. Without mindfulness, we’re tethered to our conditioned ways of thinking and responding.
Try taking mindfulness moments throughout your day to check in with how you’re feeling – especially if you find yourself going down a path of negativity. Take note of your feelings, thoughts and sensations, accept them and let them go, then apply the kindness or gratitude steps above. Gradually you’ll find a new level of balance, ease and happiness unfolding that can transform your life.
Kathy Simpson is a freelance writer with Copper Beech Institute who specializes in mindful living and holistic health. Copper Beech Institute is hosting a number of retreats in the new year to inspire renewal, authenticity, and happiness in your life. For more information, visit out retreat page.