How can we feel positive and devote effort toward a meaningful life in these unstable, uncertain times? How do we find solace when our budget is shrinking and stressors at home and work are growing? Many of us are finding ourselves on life paths that we never expected as cortisol surges through our veins. Many of us are being forced to confront what it is we want our lives to be about.
Although we can’t always feel good, our ability to be profoundly aware and curious in the present moment is the most valuable currency at our disposal, says Todd B. Kashdan,  professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.
We can’t forget that the building blocks for enduring happiness and meaning in life are moments when we are engaged and energized. Based on groundbreaking research, we can experience these moments regularly. Here are five strategies to build a firm, fulfilling foundation.
1. Nurture meaningful relationships.
Consider this fact: the only characteristic that researchers have found to distinguish very happy people from people of average happiness is that very happy people possess more satisfying, lasting relationships. When we feel liked, valued, and approved of by other people, we don’t just feel good, we actually become physically healthier. For instance, we are less susceptible to viruses and illnesses because our immune system is stronger.
But there are nonobvious secrets for creating meaningful, lasting relationships. Scientists have discovered that instead of relying on what we know about people and how they are similar to us, there is value in attending to what we don’t know about people and how they differ from us. As soon as we think we know everything there is to know about someone, we stop paying attention, which affects the quality of our relationships. The only things we know about other people is what they want to show us, what we look for, and what we want to see. Thus, start taking a renewed interest in the vast mysteries that other people provide. Look for what is unique in what they say and do from any other time you spent with them. Show interest and enthusiasm when they share positive news and events from their day. How we respond when our partners share good news is more important to their satisfaction in and commitment to our relationship with them than how supportive we are when things go wrong. Build relationships by sharing in other people’s passions and triumphs.
2. Cultivate mindfulness in daily life.
Build a regular practice of gently guiding your attention with an open and receptive attitude. Sure, you can go the route of meditation and yoga. After regular training, we can bring this open, curious mindset to our everyday life, including emotionally intense situations. But if meditation and yoga isn’t for you, skip right to the activities you are passionate about whether it be dancing, cooking, mowing the lawn, or hiking with your kids in the woods. All that matters is that you are fully aware of what is happening in the present without the blinders of expectations, stereotypes, and labels. This razor-thin moment between living in the past and thinking about the future is when we are most alive. When you build mindfulness skills, you become more tolerant and durable when confronting the inevitable pain, uncertainty, and challenges of being human.
3. Identify strengths and find situations to use them.
Feeling energized is the hallmark of using strengths, and when this happens, people are effortlessly themselves. Exploring which activities are energizing establishes the presence of strengths. By carefully dissecting our daily routine, we can identify strengths and weaknesses. It all begins with language. Start naming your strengths. Are you one of those people who is gifted at using only a few words to describe an idea when others take several paragraphs? I might call you a “streamliner.” Are you one of those MacGyver types who can solve complex mechanical problems with everyday objects (fixing a toilet with duct tape, dental floss, and a comb)? I might call you an “appliance incubator.” Be specific, be playful, and start spotting strengths.
Having a deep knowledge of strengths and weaknesses, and then being able to do something effective with them, is central to realizing your potential. This endeavor can be difficult because strengths may recede into the background or advance into the foreground, depending on the situation and need. Thus, strengths need to be understood in context. We can’t just ask someone whether they are humble; they need to be observed after an accomplishment or compliment.
Difficult times allow us to discover our resilience and strength. Certain people, activities, and careers are going to fit better with our unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. With careful consideration, we can start adjusting our goals so that we do things that energize us. By increasing opportunities to showcase our strengths, we increase our quality of life. Finding new life paths that are aligned with our strengths and passions is one of the unintentional benefits that arise from loss and difficulty.
4. Increase positivity and defuse stress and conflicts.
When we’re in an open, curious state of mind, at least some prejudice is reduced. For instance, although people generally are better at recognizing faces of their own race than faces of people of other races, putting people in a state of wonder reduces this discrepancy by improving memory for faces of people from other races. When we are arguing or negotiating with someone, collect information and ask questions about their perspective. What happens is that people who disagree with us view us as more warm and open, and in turn, show a willingness to be more generous and less demanding so that everyone ends up with better outcomes.
When your mood is positive, you are liable to be more flexible, creative, efficient, and a better decision maker. To take advantage of these benefits, explore and discover what triggers your own positive experiences. What types of music? What level of lighting? What about particular colors or clothing? How much socializing and with whom? What types of exercise and during what time of the day? Increase the presence of positivity and you will find it easier to navigate the social world in a tolerant, compassionate way.
5. Discover core values and make links to them.
If you aren’t living according to your values, you won’t be happy, no matter what you accomplish. Take the time to explore your deepest, most central values. That is, what are the guiding principles that will serve as a compass to help you make decisions among competing options and decide how to wisely spend your limited time and energy?
Imagine I could wave a magic wand to ensure that you would have the approval and admiration of everyone on the planet, forever. What, in that case, would you choose to do with your life? After you uncover the abstract values that define you, create concrete goals aligned with those values and then start devoting effort each day to progress toward these meaningful goals. In the creation of this rich, meaningful life, you are liable to catch happiness along the way.
Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. Details about his book and research can be found at www.toddkashdan.com . Follow Todd Kashdan on Twitter: @toddkashdan .