Strategy

A psychological guide to contentment: 5 behaviors to adopt

The road to happiness is paved with a good mindset.

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Happiness feels like it’s hard to come by these days. In many ways, life’s challenges have become more complicated even though we live in a time where answers and connections can be found at our fingertips.

So what separates those individuals who feel happy and satisfied from those who don’t? According to several scientific studies, mindset plays a large role. Here’s what you should know about how happy and contented people think.

5. They practice self-acceptance

University of Hertfordshire psychologists conducted a survey of 5,000 people in 2014 that asked them to rate themselves on the 10 habits identified from scientific research as being key to happiness, such as giving and relating. The one habit many people fell short on was self-acceptance — almost half of the survey participants rated themselves at 5 or less on a 10-point scale.

“Our society puts huge pressure on us to be successful and to constantly compare ourselves with others,” said Dr. Mark Williamson, director of Action for Happiness, which conducted the survey. “This causes a great deal of unhappiness and anxiety. These findings remind us that if we can learn to be more accepting of ourselves as we really are, we’re likely to be much happier.”

Here are three ways the researchers recommend practicing self-acceptance:

  • “Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.”
  • “Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you.”
  • “Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you're feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.”

4. They focus on long-term contentment

Looking at models of evolution, Cornell researchers found that having a positive attitude could be evolutionarily advantageous. This finding, they said, supports the philosophy of pursuing long-term contentment or life satisfaction rather than attempting to be instantly gratified.

“In an evolutionary sense, you have to evaluate your life on the basis of more than what happened just now,” said Shimon Edelman, professor of psychology and a co-author of the study. “Because usually what happens right now is you go hungry. It may indeed be advisable, at least under conditions of scarcity or adversity, to focus on longer-term well-being or contentment over momentary pleasures and to be less envious of one’s neighbors. Also, in general, it may be wise to mark happy events more than unhappy ones.”

“Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable.”

3. They embrace all their emotions

Based on a survey of 2,324 university students in eight countries, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that there is a relationship between happiness and experiencing “desired emotions,” even when they’re unpleasant. Participants who reported experiencing more of the emotions that they wanted to feel — positive or negative — reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms.

“Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have,” said lead researcher Maya Tamir. “All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.”

The findings, which showed correlation but not causation, suggest it doesn’t help bottling up emotions if you want to feel a sense of happiness.

2. They have meaning in their lives

It isn’t finding the answer to life’s greatest question, but those who reported the presence of meaning in their lives, rather than the search for it, had better physical and mental well-being, according to University of California San Diego School researchers.

“When you find more meaning in life, you become more contented, whereas if you don’t have purpose in life and are searching for it unsuccessfully, you will feel much more stressed out,” said study lead author Dilip V. Jeste.

Meaning in life tends to change with age. The search for it may be intense when individuals are in their 20s and reach its lowest levels at age 60.

“After age 60, things begin to change,” Jeste said. “People retire from their job and start to lose their identity. They start to develop health issues and some of their friends and family begin to pass away. They start searching for the meaning in life again because the meaning they once had has changed.”

1. They have a sense of oneness

The yogis are onto something: People who believe in the idea that everything in the world is connected and interdependent appear to have greater life satisfaction than those who don’t, according to a study out of University of Mannheim. Looking at data generated by two surveys of nearly 75,000 people in Germany, participants who highly rated their belief in oneness reported significantly greater life satisfaction. It didn’t matter whether they belonged to a religion or not.

“In my free time, I enjoy surfing, Capoeira, meditation and yoga, and all of these have been said to lead to experiences that can be described as being at one with life or nature or just experiencing a state of flow through being immersed in the activity,” said study author Laura Marie Edinger-Schons. “Oneness beliefs are more than a situation-specific feeling or mood. They rather seem to represent a general attitude toward life.”

Abstract:

The notion of being at one with a divine principle, life, the world, other persons, or even activities has been discussed in a wide variety of scientific research streams from different disciplines. It is the central goal of this article to empirically capture the notion of oneness beliefs as a time-invariant individual character trait and analyze its consequences. The results of 2 large-scale (N1 7,137; N2 67,562) empirical studies using nonstudent samples reveal that the oneness beliefs scale has good psychometric properties and correlates with related variables whereby being clearly discriminable from them. Intraindividual comparisons of 2 repeated measurements of oneness beliefs show a high correlation that is an indicator for the time-invariance and stability of the personality factor. The hypothesized positive effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction can be confirmed by applying cross-lagged regressions to test for the directionality of the effect (Study 1). The large nonstudent sample in Study 2 allows for an analysis of the effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction controlling for the religious affiliation of the participants. Results reveal a significantly positive effect of oneness beliefs on life satisfaction, even rendering the effect of some religious affiliations insignificant or negative.
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