The Secret to Finding Contentment“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13, nkjv).
These victorious words ring like they were spoken by a true champion. It’s no wonder that the person who first coined this phrase was a remarkable champion and the ultimate poster child of faith: Paul the Apostle.
Not only did Paul write two thirds of the New Testament, but his tireless promotion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through locations throughout Asia Minor established a foothold for Christianity. His divinely inspired writings have influenced countless individuals. He is exalted for his accomplishments, but his dedication was not without extreme difficulty. A partial list of things he endured includes imprisonment, floggings, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, trial under Roman law, abandonment and lashings.
What was it that kept Paul going through such difficulties? Fortunately, Paul provides several keys in his writings that can help us withstand similar difficulties in our own lives. One of these keys is found in his letter to believers in the ancient Greek city of Philippi “… for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:11-12 NIV). How could he have learned to be content in every situation? How could he claim contentment despite going through intense suffering? What is the secret to his contentment?
The Power of Thanksgiving
Paul urges us: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Paul says that he learned the secret of being content in any and every situation (v. 12), and exhorts us all to be thankful in every situation (vs. 6-7). This similarity in language is not merely a coincidence. When thanksgiving is combined with a regular prayer life, it ultimately leads to contentment in all circumstances. Not only does Paul connect the giving of thanks in every situation with the peace of God, but he also implies that it is an antidote to anxiety.
Guarding Your Mind and Heart
While we can seize on Paul’s advice in faith, there is mounting scientific evidence that verifies the truth of his statements. Over the past few decades, researchers have shown the benefits that thanksgiving has on both the mind and the heart.
Psychologists have found that gratitude has a positive influence on life satisfaction, subjective well-being, prosocial behaviors, religiosity, positive appraisals, perceived social support, hopefulness and even personality. Several studies have also found that thankfulness can guard us from negative psychological states like stress and depression.
Regular practice of gratitude has been shown to have significant physical health benefits. Researchers from the University of California San Diego found that gratitude is related to heart health by decreasing inflammatory biomarkers associated with heart disease. Research has also shown that gratitude is associated with indirect benefits—like decreasing blood pressure—related to heart health as well. In other words, thanksgiving has literally been shown to “guard the heart” as stated in Philippians 4:6-7.
Gratitude also has immune-boosting effects, which protects people from contracting various illnesses and disease. For example, it decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which has been shown to result in negative long-term health consequences by suppressing the immune system. These positive effects are particularly relevant given the current pandemic that we find ourselves in. With all these benefits, it’s no wonder that Paul exhorts us all to “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18).
Are you thankful in all circumstances? While this is a worthy goal, it is most definitely difficult to attain. Where to begin? Fortunately, initiating a lifestyle of gratitude is simple and does not require undue time or effort.
The following scientifically based strategies taken from Dr. Lyubomirsky’s book “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.” Putting one or more into practice could greatly improve your physical, spiritual and psychological well-being.
Keep a gratitude journal or diary. Many psychologists have shown that this can have tremendous effects on well being. For example, researchers from the Hong Kong Institute of Education found that healthcare practitioners who kept a simple gratitude diary just two times a week over the period of four weeks showed a reduction in perceived stress and depression for three months. Lyubomirsky suggests, “Ponder the three to five things for which you are currently grateful, from the mundane (your dryer is fixed, your flowers are finally in bloom, your husband remembered to stop by the store) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps, the beauty of the sky at night). One way to do this is to focus on all the things that you know to be true—for example, something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved, and your advantages and opportunities. Don’t forget specific individuals who care for you, have made contributions to or sacrifices for you, or somehow touch your life.”
Lyubomirsky’s research shows that benefits grow by completing a journal entry just once a week. Doing so regularly—even daily—reaps greater rewards. If writing is not your thing, consider other options. As Lyubomirsky points out, “Ultimately, there are no limits to what you can be grateful for or how you can express it. The key is to find what strategy works best for you so that you are more likely to stick with it.”
Whether you decide to write in a journal, daily identify several things for which you are thankful or thank someone who has blessed your life, contemplate or personally thank someone who has blessed your life, he suggests variety is important. As soon as you become bored with a certain practice of gratitude, mix it up by adopting other practices to “keep it fresh.” By finding new ways of being thankful or thinking of new things or people to be thankful for, you will more likely reap the benefits that gratitude has to offer. Not only will you be more happy, healthy, and satisfied with your life, but, perhaps, like Paul, also learn the secret to being content in every situation. It is worth the effort to follow his courageous lead. So, whatever it is you might be facing, let’s remember Paul’s exhortation: “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18, NIV).
Dr. David Cwir is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Booth University College in Winnipeg, Canada.