How You Can Maintain a Feeling of Contentment Even in Tough Times

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Worried about your job, the rising cost of living, the country’s political battles, the planet’s environmental problems, and more? How is it that even in indisputably bleak circumstances, some people are able to seem, well, happy? What makes one person able to weather adversity and find joy in daily existence, while another crumbles under the weight of it all? The answer isn’t black-and-white, but there are clear steps you can take to increase your happiness, no matter what life throws your way that will go into your happiness toolkit.

What Happiness Is (And Isn’t)

Defining happiness is a bit like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Happiness isn’t really elation, but more of an underneath-it-all contentment that allows you to bounce back from tough times. It’s computed, say positive psychology experts, via simple math, in which positive emotions outweigh negative ones most of the time.

Reaching the tipping point of good feelings over bad is neither as simple as plastering a smile on your face (though a grin can positively boost mood short-term), nor as complex as becoming spiritually enlightened. “Happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want, but it doesn’t come from within either,” says Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). “The best way to say it is that happiness comes from between—from finding the right relationship between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself.”

How to Create a Happiness Tool Kit

To help with your pursuit of happiness, consider our expert strategies. They can help you accentuate the positive and downplay the negative.

1. Nurture Newness

One of the biggest impediments to happiness is hedonic adaption, which simply means that new things get old fast. So, whether it’s a shiny car or a love affair, the thrill you feel tends to be short-lived. But you can create the potential for newness in everyday life by pursuing activities that absorb and stimulate you—such as a cooking class, learning to play an instrument or traveling.

These experiences are opportunities to learn fresh skills and give you a sense of satisfaction and mastery. Psychologists describe being fully engaged in such activities as “flow” and consider it a key part of happiness.

2. Cultivate Connections

Studies show that the happiest, most fulfilled folks have meaningful, ongoing relationships with friends and family. But even chatting with the grocery store cashier puts positive vibes out there and builds a sense of connectedness.

In all interactions, be present, genuine and attentive. And, rather than relying on email or phone, seek face time with the important people in your life.

3. Cease and Distract

“Rumination or overthinking is the arch-enemy of happiness,” says Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., author of Positivity (Crown Archetype, 2009). “Our minds tend to engage in time-travel, going over and over past events or worrying about the future.” Bring yourself back to the present and break negative thought cycles by engaging in active distractions—such as cleaning out your closet, sitting down and doing a crossword puzzle, walking in a park or even throwing yourself into a project at work.

4. Count Your Blessings

It may sound hokey, but openly expressing gratitude has a powerful positive effect and strengthens your positive thinking muscles,” according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D, the author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want (Penguin, 2008). Gratitude can take the form of saying grace before a meal, thanking someone for all they’ve done for you, or writing in an appreciation journal regularly. In fact, the more ways you can think of to show your thanks, the happier you’ll be.

5. Do Unto Others

Regularly performing acts of kindness can increase your feelings of confidence, self-worth and optimism, or give you what’s known as a “helper’s high,” says Lyubomirsky. Her research looked at people who performed five acts of kindness in a single day versus those who did them over the course of a week. Guess what? The folks who racked up all their kind deeds in one day reported greater happiness. This doesn’t mean five-per-day is the magic number, she says, but indicates that more is more when it comes to kindness. Think of ways, big and small, to help others—whether it’s by carrying your neighbor’s shopping bags, giving to charity or volunteering with children.

6. Seek the Larger and the Smaller

Most satisfaction-increasing strategies work by helping you shift your focus away from yourself. A time-tested way to do this is to engage in meaningful spiritual pursuits such as religious practice, prayer, meditation, or even what Lyubomirsky calls “the sanctification of things in daily life.” This can include a child’s excitement over a loose tooth, the smell of baking bread as you walk by a bakery, or the feeling of sunshine after days of rain. In other words, it really is the little things that make us happy.

Are Some People Born Happier?

Genes may not be destiny, but they appear to play a role in your happiness baseline. For example, research on identical twins found that those raised apart were more likely to share similar levels of happiness than non-identical twins raised together. Brain-imaging studies show that people with more activity on the left sides of their frontal cortex feel more positive emotions than those with higher activity on the right side. So, if you’re prone to depression, happiness will be harder to come by and sheer willpower won’t help. If you think you might be depressed (warning signs include loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, insomnia and irritability, among others), talk to your doctor. Fortunately, there are more ways than ever to combat depressive illnesses, including medications and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Once you’ve addressed any mood problems and reset your baseline, you can begin to pursue happiness-increasing activities.

From our sister publication, REMEDY's Healthy Living (Spring 2012)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 07 Feb 2012

Last Modified: 05 Mar 2015