Simple Superpowers Series, Part 1: If we want to make changes in our lives and relationships in the new year, where should we put our attention? What “little things” will make the biggest difference? Researchers have identified actions that have an outsized – almost miraculous – impact for human flourishing. We call these the simple superpowers and examine three in this series. Today’s Part 1 focuses on attitude.
For a few days not long ago, I kept an eye on the social media presence of a few popular leaders. I noticed that many of their posts were short and snappy, making important points, widely shared … and filled to overflowing with discontent.
The posts that were positive and uplifting didn’t get many comments or shares. The ones that were outraged, concerned, pointing out this is wrong! were the posts, blogs, or podcasts people clicked on. That I … clicked on.
For most of us, discontentment is a default setting. (Thanks a lot, Eve. We owe it all to you.) Seriously though, if left alone, discontentment becomes part of the wallpaper of our lives.
I can’t believe they didn’t invite me.
I hate how I look.
This place doesn’t pay me nearly enough.
My spouse never wants to watch what I want to watch.
It’s all about what we don’t have, and we don’t even notice it in the background. This affects our relationships, our health, and, if we’re Christians, even the view others have of what it looks like to follow Jesus.
We have to get out of the mode of discontentment and into … well… contentment. It’s sort of like changing the factory settings on a smartphone. For me, for example, my phone’s default notifications settings cause all sorts of problems. So I have to manually go in and change the settings until it works the way I want it to.
It’s the lesson the Apostle Paul learned when he wrote, “I have learned how to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Contentment is a learned behavior. It is a learned attitude that affects everything else in our lives. And it can be really, really hard to learn sometimes, which brings me to the first point … a question.
Why should we care?
If learning the attitude of contentment takes effort, why should we bother? Sometimes, doesn’t letting ourselves feel miserable lead to feeling better in the end?
A Biblical answer to our question is found in I Timothy, where the Apostle Paul writes, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” Godliness already sounds pretty good! But when paired with contentment, it leads to “great gain.” That original word for gain is used only once in the New Testament, and it means, literally, the way, the means, or route. In other words, contentment paves the way to gain – not the other way around.
Go back and read that last sentence again. If we truly grasp this, it will change our entire mindset. Yes, it is important to not stuff our feelings – but we do have to deal with them well.
Science also answers our “why should we care” question. Researchers have long known that discontentment literally makes us sick. For example, regardless of any other demographic or health factors, we are far more likely to catch a virus if we are more discontented or anxious during the prior week. Crazy, right?
And we haven’t even started on the most obvious issue, which is the destructive effect that discontentment has on our relationships. How many arguments, assumptions, and even affairs could be avoided if we approached our relationships with contentment, appreciation, and optimism about how we each might grow?
What we try to do to fix it
So, what do we do?
As I wrote in my devotional Find Rest, we often try to address discontentment by changing what led to it. “I’ll be content with my appearance if I lose 15 pounds.” Or, “I’ll be content with my living situation if I can make more money and get out of my tiny studio.”
Yet a funny thing happens on the way to the bigger apartment. Most of us are thrilled momentarily … and then sink right back into being attuned to what we don’t have.
Let’s hop off the hamster wheel of doing and lead with a new way of thinking instead. Let’s adopt an attitude of gratitude. For what we do have. For who our spouse is rather than who he or she isn’t. For the fact that we have a warm and dry apartment, tiny or not!
Research shows that practicing gratitude for 15 minutes a day, five days a week for at least six weeks improves mental wellness. Other studies have linked expressing gratitude to improved sleep, immunity, mood, wellness, and happiness – and decreased depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and disease. Still other studies suggest that an attitude of gratitude dramatically improves relationships, helps heal personal trauma, and helps prevent burnout.
Gratitude, it turns out, is a superpower.
How to cultivate the attitude of gratitude
Thankfully, the gratitude superpower is not reserved for heroes with capes. Anyone who wants it can cultivate it. Any one (or all) of these evidence-based steps will help you change your attitude for the long term:
- Discipline your thoughts. As the writer of Proverbs warned many thousands of years ago: “Be careful what you think because your thoughts run your life.” (Proverbs 4:23 NCV). When you hear about a gathering and think, they didn’t invite me, can you be glad for those who are enjoying the event? Is there potentially a more generous explanation for their action? We can stop and change where our thoughts go – and thus where our emotions go.
- Direct a wandering mind. Similarly, researchers are currently looking into mind-wandering as a source of discontentment. We spend an estimated one-third to one-half of our waking lives with a wandering mind. For some, this leads to what psychologists call “negative rumination” – in other words, your mind wanders to thinking about why the kids never call. Things change when we ruminate on pleasant memories instead. (For more on how and why to do more of this, look up Philippians 4:8, 2 Corinthians 10:5, and Ephesians 4:22-32.)
- Praise others. When we practice praise, we become more grateful. We develop a habit of being on the lookout for good (gratitude) and calling attention to it (praise). I’ve written about this before, but speaking our gratitude out loud is key. Gratitude expressed audibly appears to “wake our brains up.” It creates a cycle in which we crave it more. (This can especially make our spouses come alive. For example, in my For Women Only research, we found that a simple “thank you” is a man’s equivalent of “I love you.”)
- Look for chances to be kind. After years of research for our 30-Day Kindness Challenge (and book The Kindness Challenge) we quantified the power of focused kindness toward another person to transform our own attitude. We found three actions anyone can do to transform any relationship. The first is to Say nothing negative about your person for thirty days – either to them or about them to someone else. It is amazing how this changes any unseen tendencies to be discontent. (Discover the other two actions by taking the challenge. It may be the best thing you do in 2024; we found that 89% of relationships improved!)
- Use discontentment triggers as opportunities to reset your defaults. Finally, this one will help you do all of the above. When that old factory setting of discontentment tries to slip back in, look at what triggered it – and use it as a very specific opportunity to reset your defaults. Type these four questions into your phone’s notes or keep them handy (feel free to add your own), and each time you are discontented ask yourself:
- How can this perceived negative help me grow? (e.g. increased patience, dependence, faith)
- How can I be grateful for my life as it is right now?
- How might this situation be bigger than me? (e.g. who else is involved, watching, suffering?)
- What aspect of God’s character is this challenge teaching me?
Next week we’ll explore another simple superpower – this one with the potential to open up more playfulness and discovery in our relationships (especially our marriage relationship) than we ever thought possible.
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at email@example.com.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- What Wives Need Most From Their Husbands (Part 1)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 2)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 1)
- In Money and Marriage, Remember the Past to Have Faith in the Future
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life – part 2
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life