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Mental Health

How to Find Contentment: 3 Expert Tricks to Channel True Serenity

New research reveals that contentment is the surprising key to a rich, rewarding life

Joy. Bliss. Excitement. The neon signs of positive emotions get all the attention, but new research from Yale and UC Berkeley suggests a decidedly less flashy emotion is the key to fulfillment: contentment. “Contentment is rooted in the idea that a flourishing life is not dependent on external circumstances but rather on an inner state of peace,” says Navin Amarasuriya of the Contentment Foundation.

As with so many things in life, that brings us to… Taylor Swift! One of the best ways to appreciate the difference between joy and contentment is to imagine having a blast at one of the superstar’s concerts, adds Catherine A. Sanderson, PhD, author of The Positive Shift. “You may have a wonderful time singing your heart out, but this feeling is fleeting,” she says, explaining that contentment, by contrast, is an enduring satisfaction. “Its qualities include a sense of calm and engagement in your life.” Here, three easy ways to cultivate this quiet yet powerful emotion.

1. Find greater meaning every day

Contentment is a macro emotion best gauged by looking at your life as a whole, so it makes sense that the search for meaning is central to reaping its rewards.

“Meaning is a broad idea, but it always encompasses something bigger than yourself,” says Sanderson, who finds purpose in an activity that we’re all envious of: fostering rescue dogs. “The act of giving — be it your time, talents or money — is very closely associated with life satisfaction.”

Related: How Nature Can Boost Your Happiness: 4 Easy Ways to Reap More Joy

Woman hugging her dog outside
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Whether you join a gardening club or read to an elderly neighbor, the connections you make provide a sense of belonging and identity that ease stress, adds Amarasuriya. “Such steadiness bolsters your emotional resilience and contributes to a more sustained feeling of groundedness.”

This foundational sense of self is also supported by loftier pursuits, as research shows spirituality is linked with contentment. One of the many amazing things about spirituality is that it can be defined on your terms. Explains Sanderson, “It can mean having religious beliefs or looking back on your life and acknowledging that you’ve done good things in this world and touched people’s lives — as long as it’s brought you purpose, it will make you feel engaged and inspired.”

2. Boost bonds by fostering all ties

A contented life revolves around strong relationships, notes Sanderson. “You don’t have to get married or become a parent, for example, because the type of relationship isn’t important — it just needs to be close and authentic.”

Related: 8 Proven Ways to Unleash the Power of Hopefulness and Spark More Joy

The benefits of having tight bonds are clear, but that doesn’t mean “weak ties” are anything to sneeze at. “We consistently underestimate the power of a small gesture, like texting someone out of the blue or saying hello to our mail carrier, and how great this makes us feel,” says Sanderson. In fact, recent Harvard research suggests that having a mix of both weaker connections, like acquaintances, and stronger ones, like deep friendships, leads to greater fulfillment over the long-term because the diversity of our relationships is what matters most.

3. Invite novelty with wonder

While characterized by a sense of calm, contentment is by no means passive, says Donald Lucas, PhD, author of Being: Your Happiness, Pleasure, and Contentment. In fact, he jokingly suggests it should be redefined as a verb.

Related: Research: Curiosity Is the Secret to All-Day Happiness — Here’s How to Unleash Yours

Woman sitting atop car and looking out happily at nice view
blackCAT/Getty

“Contentment is doing something for the sake of doing it, like taking a drive on a beautiful summer afternoon simply for the journey.” Such actions are known as autotelic, meaning they’re sparked by internal desires, rather than by external pressures.

One of Lucas’ favorite ways to pursue contentment is with “wonderments,” trying new things to put himself in an autotelic state. “I wonder if I can write a daily message of gratitude for a month; I wonder if I can visit a chocolate shop every week.” Novelty and contentment are intertwined because we must try new things in order to grow.

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