Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:16-18).
That’s a tall order St Paul lays on us. It can be hard to remain joyful even when times are good, but it’s especially challenging when life becomes complicated or downright difficult. The first thing to remember is that while joy and happiness are related, they aren’t the same thing. Happiness is more fleeting and dependent upon our environment, while joy is a state of being that allows us to hold on to a sense of rightness, connectedness and peace even through difficult times.
Here are a few tips to help you cultivate joy in challenging times.
1. Don’t Pretend
Many believe that being joyful means pretending that things are better than they are, but true joy can only flourish in a spirit of authenticity. It’s ok to admit you have problems. Dealing with problems joyfully means reminding yourself of all the times you’ve made it through difficulties before, all the times God has delivered you from previous challenges, and then making a plan—in graceful confidence—to overcome the challenges you are facing in the here and now. To hold on to joy through trials, praise God for his past providence and make a plan for the future.
Research consistently shows that prayer improves well-being. The more we pray the more resilient we are and the more peaceful we will be. Cultivating an active prayer life is key to maintaining the attitudes (and grace) that makes joy possible.
3. Reflect on Past Successes
We can have a tendency to dwell on the hard bits of past experience and de-emphasize the fact that we made it through in one piece (or even with flying colors). The more we can focus on the ways God has come through for us in the past and the times we have successfully overcome hardship the more we are able to draw meaning from past struggles and the more we can do that, the more hopeful we can be that our present trials will be meaningful too.
4. Maintain Rituals and Routines.
A large part of cultivating joy is maintaining our connection with others. The best way to do that is creating and keeping up rituals and routines like family meals, prayer times, game nights, family fun days, etc. Having regular, scheduled, expected times to connect with others is critical. When hard times hit, we tend to jettison our rituals and routines first. That’s a tragic mistake. A nice family meal in the middle of a crisis can be a port in the storm. A game night can be the eye of the hurricane. To keep up your joy, maintain the rituals that keep up your connection with others and the routines that give order to your life.
5. Be a Blessing
Another big part of joy is feeling that your life is making a difference to others. Even if you’re going through a tough time, ask yourself everyday, “What is one small thing I can do to make someone’s life a little easier or more pleasant?” It takes a little effort on the front end—especially if you’re having a bad day/week/month/year yourself—but it gets you out of your head and helps you see that you really do have the power to change things for the better. Being generous to others gives you the hope you need to apply your resources more effectively in your own life.
We tend to think that humor has to surprise us to count. That’s not true. Especially when you’re going through a rough patch, you need to intentionally seek out opportunities to laugh. Go out with that friend who always helps you put things in perspective. Go to that funny movie. Watch that comedian you like or those silly videos on YouTube. Make yourself seek out laughable moments. There is a lot of science behind the notion that intentionally seeking out laughter is tremendously healing and focuses your mind in a way that puts problems in perspective and enables you to become more aware of resources you have previously overlooked.
There is a reason that psychologists consider humor one of the most effective and sophisticated defense mechanisms. Cultivating joy obviously involves more than trying to turn your life into a laugh riot; but turing to laughter, especially when you’re going through hardships, stops you from ruminating about all the negative stuff in your life and enables you to find the little blessing that make life worthwhile.
The goods news is, you can become a more joyful person regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in. Joy enables us to find meaning, confidence, and peace even through the most imperfect of days. You don’t have to wait for it to happen to you. You can go out and find it.