If you were asked to choose one word to describe the times we live in, what would it be? You might say stressful, intense, or exhausting—all true, for sure.
As for me, I’m going 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. As the aircraft shakes and plunges through bad weather, your adrenaline soars, your stomach lurches, and your heart pounds.
That’s an accurate description of what most of us have experienced in recent years, as we’ve endured pandemic-caused chaos, political upheaval, and social unrest.
Let’s add another word to this discussion that we desperately need in these turbulent times: contentment. This is the quality of inner peace, calm, and serenity that holds us steady through jarring ups and downs. Is it truly possible to experience contentment amid modern life’s uncertainty and turmoil? Absolutely!
As a mental health professional of 35 years, I’ve counseled thousands of people struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, and many other afflictions. Those willing to invest themselves in the healing process experienced deep-down contentment that they hadn’t before.
Two foundational points are essential to understand.
First, contentment 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’re seeking anything external—outside of yourself—to bring contentment, you’ll be searching forever. True contentment has nothing to do with what you have or don’t have; proof lies in the fact that unhappy people are found on every rung of the economic ladder and in any job title, investment portfolio, and collection of possessions. Genuine contentment has everything to do with emotional and spiritual well-being. It comes from within you, always.
Second, contentment is a learned skill. Since I was raised in a Scripture-reading home, I’ve always admired the perspective shared by the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11-12:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
We can learn to be content in all things, no matter the degree of turbulence that we encounter. All of us are born into this world needy and demanding, and many people stay that way throughout their lives. But content people understand that well-being and fulfillment emerge from the choices we make and the lessons we learn.
Let’s look at specific ways we can all learn to achieve contentment.
Gratitude is the antidote for every toxic thing that comes into our lives. Simply put, gratitude fosters optimism, hopefulness, and resilience. That’s why it’s hard to imagine a more powerful cure-all than choosing to be consistently thankful.
Summarizing the results of a long-term study investigating the effects of daily gratitude, Harvard Medical School researchers said, “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”
Gratitude has a way of multiplying exponentially—the more you choose to be grateful, the more you’ll find to be grateful for. An attitude of thankfulness opens the door to experiencing the fullness of life and developing a heart of peace. Closely observe the countless good things that you enjoy but may tend to overlook. Spend time intentionally cultivating gratitude, and watch how it improves everything about your life.
Engage in Rewarding Activities
Experiencing discontentment can cause you to forget 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 invigorate you.
Take a moment to identify and write down five activities that bring you joy. Going to a movie? Lunch with friends? Spending a day at the museum, zoo, park, or golf course? Then, begin scheduling these activities. Maintaining your enjoyment isn’t selfish; it’s vital to your well-being.
Feeling discontent can make you feel isolated and alone. But all around you is a healthy array of people eager to share your journey. Studies have shown that social support can help you build resilience against stress and provide you with practical ideas for dealing with distress and disappointment.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to a close friend, counselor, or mentor for ongoing help and mutual support. People like this 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.
Envision Your Best Possible Self
For the next two weeks, spend 15 minutes every day thinking about, writing down, and considering your ideal future. Ponder your goals and dreams, and envision that everything works out to be the very best situation. Then spend another five minutes visualizing this best future life as vividly as you can, with a lot of details.
This exercise is more than just a feel-good pep talk for yourself; you’ll be retraining your mind and redirecting your thoughts. A study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry demonstrated that this exercise boosted participants’ levels of optimism.
Steer Your Thoughts
What goes on in your head inevitably and irrefutably comes out 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 influence your happiness, relationships, career, parenting, mental health, and physical well-being.
This presents a good news/bad news scenario: If your thoughts are consistently affirming, optimistic, and constructive, your life is sure to advance in a positive direction. But if your thoughts are consistently critical, pessimistic, and destructive, your life will advance in a negative direction.
Holding on to pain is toxic to your heart and soul. Forgiving someone who has harmed you is never easy, but working through the process removes a major obstacle on your path toward contentment.
People who seek counseling at the clinic I direct are often surprised when we ask about broken or embittered relationships in their lives. They fail to see the link between their mental distress and their unresolved conflicts with others. But our experience has removed all doubt that hanging on to offenses and emotional wounds is an effective (and unfortunate) way to punish yourself. Forgiveness brings you freedom.
A growing body of social science research demonstrates the physical and mental health benefits of forgiveness.
“Whether you’ve suffered a minor slight or a major grievance, learning to forgive those who hurt you can significantly improve both psychological well-being and physical health,” an article published by the American Psychological Association reads. “Research has shown that forgiveness is linked to mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety, depression, and major psychiatric disorders, as well as with 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 determining this state of mind is learning to be optimistic. In a pessimistic, negative world, this can be challenging.
Thankfully, we all have access to hope and can choose hopefulness as our prevailing approach to life. This is the mental and emotional framework that supports contentment, even when the winds of negativity buffet it. An optimistic outlook empowers you to live above your circumstances.
Do you know someone whose attitude is amazing, even though they’ve gone through terrible things? Do you know someone whose well-being seems to be impervious to life’s challenges? These optimists have one thing in common: They make a daily choice to look for the good in life, even amid difficult circumstances.
You, too, can make a choice to live with contentment, every moment of every day.