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Countless people spend their lives searching for happiness and contentment, but how many ever find it? What if someone gave you concrete physical and spiritual steps you can take to be a happier person?
Life today can be incredibly stressful. Refuge, rest, and relief seem to elude us wherever we look for them. All of us long to achieve a happy, contented state of mind, but so many of us find it perpetually out of reach. Are there any real steps we can take to find happiness in an increasingly unhappy era?
When we look at the world around us, it is clear that something is wrong. Consider the United States. If the citizens of such an affluent nation cannot be happy, who could be? In many ways, the U.S. is the envy of the world, financially prosperous with wealth that many other nations can only dream of—even its poorest are among the wealthier people on our planet. As for its security, it is protected by two broad oceans, not to mention the world’s most powerful military. Ninety-nine percent of its people are literate, food is plentiful, and employment is at near-record highs. Yet the U.S. is currently suffering a suicide epidemic.
The American Psychological Association notes, “The suicide rate increased 33 percent from 1999 through 2017, from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people…. Rates have increased more sharply since 2006. Suicide ranks as the fourth leading cause of death for people ages 35 to 54, and the second for 10- to 34-year-olds. It remains the 10th leading cause of death overall” (“Worrying trends in U.S. suicide rates,” Monitor on Psychology, March 2019).
This decades-long trend cannot be blamed on a single political party or presidential administration. It cannot be blamed on any single event or circumstance. It points to something deeper. And the young seem most strongly affected. As reported by U.S. News and World Report, “Adolescent depression is on the rise. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 3.2 million 12- to 17-year-olds have had at least one major depressive episode within the past 12 months. [Teens] who are depressed often struggle with anxiety and substance abuse as well, which is why early detection of the mood disorder can be tricky.” A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology notes that “over the past decade the number of youth with mental health disorders has more than doubled” (“What’s Driving the Rise in Teen Depression?,” U.S. News and World Report, April 22, 2019).
How can a nation blessed with such abundance and promise be filled with such depression and hopelessness? How can so many affluent and comfortable people fail to find happiness? Clearly, the U.S. is living proof that happiness is not found in collecting an abundance of physical things.
But this is good news! Why? Because it suggests that happiness is far more our own decision—far more under our own control—than most people realize. Whether we are rich or poor, healthy or ill, young or old, extrovert or introvert, we can take steps to achieve the contentment, peace, and happiness we desire.
In the rest of this article, we’ll discuss seven steps we can take to find more happiness in life. Some may seem almost too simple to be true. Others may be steps you already know you should take but have been putting off. Others may surprise you and even seem hard to believe at first. But all of them involve actions we can begin taking today. Let’s consider the following steps we can take to bring more lasting happiness into our lives.
Perhaps you are not an “outside” person. Honestly, I’m not—I enjoy my air conditioning and my reclining chair! But there is something rejuvenating about regularly taking the time to experience some of God’s creation. So, spend time enjoying nature.
King David of Israel often associated nature with positive emotions. Meditating on the ways in which the Messiah’s coming reign will transform the world, he was moved to reflect poetically on nature’s response: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all its fullness; let the field be joyful, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord” (Psalm 96:11–13).
In our world of steel-and-concrete buildings, artificial light, plastic tools and utensils, and constant distractions, it may be challenging to pause from time to time and seek access to the natural world, to connect with nature and its God. Studies, however, show that such effort is well worth our time. Harvard University researchers have recognized the connection between happiness and natural surroundings: “It’s not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect. Yet, in a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination—defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions” (“Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature,” Harvard Men’s Health Watch, July 2018).
God has given us a wonderful natural world that demonstrates His presence—though we’ve worked hard to cover much of it with concrete and asphalt! If we want to take a step toward increasing happiness in our lives, we should regularly seek to spend time enjoying nature.
Accomplishing our first step will get us away from our laptops and smartphones more often, which is related to a second step toward finding more happiness: Disconnect from social media.
How many of us are addicted to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat? If you don’t think you are, try going without them for a week—you might be surprised! Ironically, while social media is touted as a way to bring us all closer together, studies have shown that it often increases people’s loneliness and unhappiness.
In 2018, Dr. Melissa Hunt at the University of Pennsylvania published the results of her research into the effects of social media. Specifically, she examined the effect of decreasing one’s use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. She noted that “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study” (“Social media use increases depression and loneliness, study finds,” ScienceDaily.com, November 8, 2018).
Aware that her results would surprise many, Dr. Hunt commented: “It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely…. Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours” (ibid.).
Neither Dr. Hunt nor we at Tomorrow’s World suggest that we must abandon all social media. Nevertheless, studies undeniably show that reducing our time with it often does increase our happiness. Gerald Weston, this magazine’s Editor in Chief, discusses this topic in great detail in his March-April 2018 Tomorrow’s World article “Tame the Social Media Monster!,” which you can find at TomorrowsWorld.org.
To take the third step toward increased happiness, tend to your health. We live in a time when science and medicine have given us amazing knowledge about the human body and how to help it perform at its best, yet we paradoxically live in a time when few people care for their health as they should!
Consider the blessing of a good night’s sleep! Ancient King David spoke of sleep as a God-given blessing (Psalm 127:2). Yet all around us we see people sacrificing their sleep to jobs, to passing pleasures—even to smartphones. Irregular sleep harms both our health and our happiness.
In June 2017, ScienceDaily reported on a study suggesting that there is a direct connection between regular sleep habits and happiness—even when the amount of sleep is deficient. “Results show that higher sleep regularity was significantly related to higher morning and evening happiness, healthiness and calmness during the week. Transitioning from an irregular weekly sleep pattern to a regular pattern also was associated with improved well-being, both during the week of regular sleep and on the day following it” (“Sleep regularity is important for the happiness and well-being of college students,” ScienceDaily.com, June 5, 2017).
Researchers found that, even when sleep could not be increased, going to bed and getting up at roughly the same times every day enhanced people’s feelings of happiness, healthiness, and peacefulness. We are physical beings, and tending to our physical needs will increase our opportunities to find happiness!
Poor health is a source of stress and unhappiness like no other, and of course, many of us suffer health conditions beyond our control. Still, if we seek to do whatever we can, we will see benefits in our state of mind. If we treat our bodies well, we can find much more happiness than some might expect, even in the middle of otherwise difficult health challenges.
Our next step may surprise you, but it is vital—especially for those who are suffering and who are tempted to give in to feelings of despair and defeat.
We may sometimes be tempted to dwell on the problems in our lives. Nobody’s life is perfect, and it is easy to become depressed by comparing our lives to the lives of others. We noted earlier that this is one of the dangers of excessive social media use. As hard as it may seem to some, especially when they are in difficult circumstances, there is a vital step we all can take to increase our satisfaction with life and our happiness: Practice active gratitude at all times.
It is easy enough to be thankful when we are happy and successful. What I am talking about, however, is the step of actively practicing and growing in a mindset in which we are grateful at all times—even during our trials—and using gratitude as a tool to grow our happiness!
The Apostle Paul was moved to encourage the Christians living in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). Research shows that obeying this command and giving thanks in everything is a powerful way to promote happiness and well-being!
In his book Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, psychologist Robert Emmons writes about the benefit of purposefully and consciously cultivating gratitude. Emmons notes that “while the emotion seemed simplistic even to me as I began my research, I soon discovered that gratitude is a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change people’s lives” (p. 2).
Dr. Emmons and his colleague Michael McCullough of the University of Miami “discovered scientific proof that when people regularly engage in the systematic cultivation of gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and interpersonal.… [In] some cases, people have reported that gratitude led to transformative life changes” (p. 3). Emmons found that these life changes were not just illusory, but were confirmed by the testimonies of these individuals’ spouses, friends, and families.
In his research, Emmons defined gratitude as acknowledging goodness in our lives and acknowledging the source of that goodness to be outside ourselves—that is, gratitude must be directed toward someone else. And he found it all the more important that we practice gratitude for our blessings in times of trial and difficulty, when those blessings may seem hardest to find. As Dr. Emmons writes, “Searching for and being thankful for what is positive in every situation digs the tunnel and breaks the stranglehold of despair” (p. 184).
Yes, when the Apostle Paul said to give thanks in everything, to always focus on the good, he knew what he was talking about!
None of us can pretend that we do not go through hard times. We do. Life can be difficult, and reasons to worry or feel anxious often seem to come at us one after another in a continuous parade of concerns. We can be grateful that God’s word gives us a fifth step to take in achieving a happier, more peaceful state of mind: Let God know about your worries.
In chapter 4 of Philippians, one of the most encouraging books of the Bible, we read, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (vv. 6–7).
This involves the thanksgiving of our previous step, but also more than that. God tells us to let our thanksgiving and our requests “be made known to God.” One of our greatest sources of happiness and encouragement is the knowledge that our Savior loves us and can be trusted with every one of our concerns! The Apostle Peter encourages us, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7).
Of course, we must trust God’s response to our worries, believing that He has the wisdom to see what we do not and the power to act however He must. Notice that our prayer is not merely “venting” to God. As we thank Him, praise Him for who He is, and cast our cares upon Him, we are to humble ourselves as He gives us His peace, as we remain confident that He will deliver us in His way, in His time. What greater happiness can there be than to know that we have a Savior who is sovereign in our lives, whose decisions and love for us we can trust?
In our previous step, we saw that we are to pray with “supplication.” We are to ask God to meet our needs. How do we know that He will do so? The Bible is full of wonderful promises for those who seek the Creator God and His Son, our Savior, and whose priority in life is His coming Kingdom. Our next step is to believe those promises and claim them!
God’s promises can transform every area of our lives. They concern health and security for us and our loved ones, yes, but so much more besides. They offer true peace of mind and a future beyond what we can even imagine! In fact, the Bible contains so many promises that we could scarcely scratch the surface of them in the short space of this article. You may want to read Richard F. Ames’ inspiring article “Surviving—and Thriving—in Times of Stress” from our September-October 2019 issue, available at TomorrowsWorld.org.
We know how comforting it feels to have confidence in a parent or spouse who makes and keeps wonderful promises. How much more we should feel grateful that the God of the universe, who has no human failings that may disappoint us, has made promises that He can ensure will come to pass. As we believe God’s promises and see them fulfilled in our lives, we will tap into an astonishing source of happiness, peace, and contentment!
The seventh step we can take toward increasing lasting happiness in our lives may be the most powerful of all, yet it is also the most counterintuitive—because it involves not seeking happiness at all!
In their pursuit of happiness, many never discover the vital truth that happiness cannot be, in and of itself, our goal. Indeed, the more fervently we chase after real and lasting happiness, the more fully it eludes us! Cheap and temporary happiness can be ours easily, but the more we directly seek deep happiness, the kind that reflects true life satisfaction, the more we cannot find it.
Why? Because lasting, significant, and profound happiness is a byproduct of what we do, not an end unto itself! And the byproduct that is contentment, peace, and happiness is best found by abandoning the search for happiness and instead taking our seventh step: Being a part of something bigger than yourself.
Playwright George Bernard Shaw famously wrote of this principle: “This is the true joy in life… being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy” (Man and Superman, pp. xxxi-xxxii).
Wise King Solomon wrote that God has placed eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Something deep within us wants to know that we are connected to something larger than ourselves. There is a happiness in that connection that isn’t available to us any other way.
Of course, there is no greater effort than to contribute to Jesus Christ’s own effort to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world. That effort gave the Apostle Paul a sense of satisfaction and purpose that carried him through terrible times of suffering and uncertainty.
Even when imprisoned and in danger of losing his life, Paul possessed such a steadfast peace and a passionate joy that, on trial before King Agrippa, in chains and surrounded by accusers, he chose not to defend himself but instead to preach the Gospel. Affected by Paul’s words, the king said that Paul had almost convinced him to be a Christian, and Paul responded boldly: “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
Yes, even imprisoned and in chains, Paul wished he could share with Agrippa—and all men and women—the joy, confidence, and happiness he had found in knowing his purpose and contributing to God’s Work in the world, sharing the glorious truth of God’s coming Kingdom.
We find meaning, and through meaning we find happiness, when we are part of something that is truly larger than ourselves—our families, our loved ones, our communities, and ultimately our God, His Work, and His ultimate purpose for our lives: being a part of His family in His Kingdom forever. When we devote ourselves to service in pursuit of those larger goals, happiness comes naturally, and far more deeply than when we seek it directly as an end unto itself.
Will you put all seven of these steps into action in your life? If you do, you will be on the way to happiness as you have never known it before—for now and for eternity.