Part of being human is experiencing the challenges life throws at you. Sometimes you’re prepared for them and other times you’re completely blindsided. Here’s the good news: while it’s impossible to have complete and utter control over what happens to you, you can control your emotional reaction to whatever external events you face.
When you’re dealt a tough hand, your natural inclination is often to react with frustration, anxiety, and perhaps even depression. In difficult times, these emotions are normal and to be expected. However, you get into trouble when you dwell on how unpleasant you’re feeling. While finding a little joy amid chaos may feel far-fetched, it’s often when you need it the most.
Be Flexible and Resilient
Ironically, difficult experiences can even contribute to finding happiness when you take the right approach and have a positive mindset. A 2010 study found that psychological flexibility, the ability to be open and adapt to life’s demands, can benefit your psychological well-being. The researchers suggest that facing a difficult situation with more flexibility can pave the way for greater efficacy and life fulfillment.
Moreover, people who exhibit resilience—the ability to withstand and adapt to life’s challenges—may also experience greater life satisfaction, according to a 2012 study. Researchers found that study participants who were the most resilient also reported greater life satisfaction and control over their emotions and mindset. The researchers point to self-esteem and self-regulation as two key components for overcoming adversity and improving quality of life.
If you’re facing a challenge and looking to build resilience and flexibility to help overcome it, a good first step is to do things that make you feel good. Performing actions—no matter how small—that bring you happiness will shorten the duration of your suffering. Why prolong pain when there are steps you can take to feel better, regardless of external circumstances?
The following are six ways to feel happier when times are tough.
1. Surround Yourself with Friends and Family
You aren’t wired to tackle life’s hardships on your own. You’re a social creature and benefit from a strong social support network, particularly when you’ve hit a rough patch. According to the Mayo Clinic, social support can:
- Increase self-esteem
- Enhance mental health
- Promote healthy behaviors
- Help you to better handle stress
A 2011 study published in Developmental Psychology found that when fifth and sixth graders did not have a best friend present during a negative experience, their cortisol levels raised, and their self-worth decreased. Less of a change occurred when a best friend was present, suggesting friends serve as a powerful buffer against stress.
Friends and family should lift you up, ignite joy, and make your life better just by being a part of it. If the company you keep tends to bring you down and add stress to your life, you may need to reevaluate those relationships. Or, if you’re in need of a network, it’s never too late to build one. Get involved in activities that will connect you with like-minded people:
Remain consistent and stay open to developing new, positive friendships.
2. Take Pleasure in the Simple Things
When you’re experiencing a rough patch—whether its financial, emotional, or otherwise—you may not have the funds, energy, or time to do the things you once sought pleasure from. Vacations may need to be tabled for the time. Trips to the spa for a little self-care might be out of the question. However, life’s simplest pleasures require little of you. They’re convenient, inexpensive, and can fill your soul in a way that more lavish activities can’t.
The silver lining of hitting rock bottom is that it brings you back to the basics. It’s why you often hear of people who have faced a hardship, such as a serious illness, come out the other side appreciating the little things more than they did before the experience. Hardships make you grateful for the things you already have or, at the very least, allow you to recognize what you had all along.
Two things can encourage you to enjoy the simple things: engaging the senses and connecting. Your senses help to ground you in the moment, whether it’s smelling a strong cup of coffee or eating a delicious meal. In addition, connecting with others, yourself, the earth, or animals can provide you with much-needed insight and clarity into a situation that may have felt heavy and hopeless.
The following are a few ways to enjoy life’s simple pleasures:
- Reconnect with the world around you
- Take a walk in nature
- Cook or bake
- Practice gratitude
- Take time to journal or read
3. Do Some Good
Doing something nice for others is one of the most effective ways to feel better. Taking the focus off of yourself and instead performing a simple act of kindness for someone else can lift you up, regardless of the challenge you’re facing. It not only gives your brain a break from worrying, but it also allows you to experience the joy that comes with brightening someone else’s day.
Often when you’re overwhelmed, you feel as though you don’t have the time for anything outside of solving your problem. Lifting someone else’s mood might feel futile when you feel unable to improve your own. But it’s actually in making others feel better that you will start to feel a bit lighter as well, putting you in a better mindset to work through problems.
Keep ideas small and simple as they can be just as effective, if not more so, than grand gestures. Make small talk with strangers, pay someone a compliment, or let a friend know how much they mean to you. Or you can surprise someone who is need of company. Dropping in unexpectedly with a cup of coffee shows you care and that you’re thinking of them. It’s an instant mood lifter for both sides.
4. Practice Mindfulness to Stay Present
When times are tough, you may become anxious about an uncertain future or ruminate over a past filled with regret. Happiness exists only in the present, but you have to remain there long enough to experience it. Enter mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been shown to improve emotional well-being as it grounds you in the present moment. The practice helps you become more mindful of your thoughts, giving you the opportunity to catch negative thoughts and release them rather than allowing them to snowball. Your ability to do this will strengthen with practice and will be particularly helpful when a challenge comes your way.
If you’re new to mindfulness, start by sitting quietly for a few minutes a day. Observe your breath, connect with your senses, and notice how your body feels. If a thought intrudes, which it inevitably will, gently bring your attention back to your body and your breath. Mindfulness takes practice so it’s vital that you’re gentle with yourself. You can gradually work your way up to a longer practice—start small.
5. Maintain Realistic Expectations (While Celebrating Small Victories)
You’ve set an unrealistic expectation for yourself and then become frustrated when you didn’t meet it. You either blame yourself or you blame your external circumstances. Often, you set unrealistic, if not impossible, expectations and don’t allow yourself much of a chance to meet them.
When going through a challenging time, it’s important to take action to avoid becoming stuck. Having a plan in place, to either change the situation directly or simply to get into a healthy headspace to handle it, will allow you to feel more in control of what’s happening around you. However, if the action steps are unattainable or don’t take into account the reality of what you’re facing and feeling, you’ll end up making yourself feel even worse off.
Create small, attainable steps to help reach your goals. Make them as specific as possible and include deadlines when necessary. The simpler the step, the better your chances of accomplishing it. Once you cross a step off your list, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem, celebrate your victory. These can be small as well such as treating yourself to a coffee or meeting up with a friend.
Also important to bear in mind is that you can only control so much. Instead of taking action to change something that is not within your power, relinquish control and focus on taking care of your body and mind instead. Regardless of what you’re going through, you can always benefit from a little self-care. Strengthen both your body and mind through exercise, meditation, and nutrition so that you’re prepared to tackle that action plan or to simply sit peacefully with the situation.
When you’re under stress, everything feels heavy. Your situation feels daunting, mood is low, and energy is depleted. You may feel buried by your burdens and lacking the motivation to dig yourself out. These are the moments when play is most essential. Play serves as a great distraction while giving you permission to enjoy life despite your problems. Plus, it makes you feel good, in turn putting you in a better frame of mind to conjure up solutions.
You often forget that playtime in adulthood is even an option as it’s something you typically associate with childhood. As you age, responsibilities increase and your imagination weakens. However, typically the activities you enjoyed when you were kids are just as enjoyable in adulthood. Swimming, riding a bike, or playing a game can all transport you back to childhood.
In tough times, remember to be kind to yourself. Practice self-compassion and remain patient. Happiness is possible in difficult circumstances. You just have to seek it out. Ultimately, the effort will be well worth it.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
Learn how to apply the ancient wisdom of Vedanta to experience joy and transformation in your everyday life at Infinite Possibilities, our one-of-a-kind event led by Deepak Chopra. Learn More.