“What will make you happy?” That’s the question a young pastor began his sermon with recently. He gave us a few moments to think and I began typing away on my iPad a short list of the things that would do the trick: a steady income, benefits, a book deal, a life God would be pleased with… But the pastor didn’t wait for the congregation to finish our thoughts. “If you have an answer to that question,” he interrupted, “you will never be happy.”
It was shocking to hear out loud, but the truth often is. He’s right: as long as we believe there is something we don’t already have that can make us “happy,” we’ll always feel the discontentment ache. And an ill-content life is a miserable one.
So let’s all stop driving ourselves to misery in pursuit of happiness. Instead, here are three steps that will change your perspective and lead to a new life of contentment.
1. Manage Your Expectations. Think back to every problem you’ve ever had with another person. Likely, you expected a person to behave a certain way, that person fell short of the expectation, and conflict was born. But what if you dropped the expectations you've placed on other people in the past? What if you could acknowledge that—though there is a way you'd like for others to treat you—people don't always behave the way we want them to. People can only behave as well as their individual circumstances and character allow. When we appropriately adjust our expectations of people, we’re in for a lot less disappointment and conflict.
That goes for us, as well. We can easily fall short of unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves and become very disappointed when life reveals that we aren’t who we thought we should be. When we accept each other’s limitations—and our own—we free ourselves to be human, make mistakes and grow from them.
2) Give Generously. The root of discontentment is a desire for more, whether it’s stuff, money, love, affection or praise. But if we can take the things we desire and learn to generously give those things away, we break the power insatiable desire has over us and free ourselves to be content in the present.
While it may be easier to give to a stranger, we can really retrain our brain to be content by giving to those who play an active role in our daily lives—especially those people you may not particularly care for. Seek those people out and offer them something as simple as a compliment. Focus on their positive attributes, dig deep and sincerely praise them for something they do well. Many difficult people are still human and just want to be valued like anyone else. When you remain positive in your thinking and interaction with them, you may find those harsh exteriors melting away.
But even if they never change, when you focus on the good in difficult personalities, you’ll find your life to be much more tolerable and perhaps even pleasant.
3) Practice the Art of Gratitude. When life isn’t going as expected, it can be very difficult to find things to be grateful for. That’s why the practice of gratitude is an art that we all have to work at constantly. Tell yourself, Today, I’m going to find three positive things in my life that I’m thankful for. Watch and see: in no time, you’ll lose count and begin to recognize a shift in your mood along with your perspective.
While you’re counting your many blessings, also begin to play closer attention to the people in your life. Make sure to express your gratitude often to these people for even the smallest things that they do to positively impact your life. Your act of appreciation can not only brighten their day but also your own outlook on life.
Learning to be content despite circumstances, setbacks and disappointments can be both painful and difficult—breaking bad habits usually are. But be patient with yourself, accept the process and find your joy right here in the present.