Overjoyed woman expresses contentment in nature

Finland has been ranked the happiest country in the world for six years in a row. And many other Northern European countries such as Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Norway are also highly ranked. But Finns wouldn’t necessarily claim to be happy; they would say they are satisfied – more satisfied with their lot in life.

Complacency is rarer in the US, where the pursuit of the American Dream makes us one of the most ambitious countries on Earth. So does all this striving affect our happiness?

Finding satisfaction

According to the psychotherapist Nero Felicianoauthor of This book will not make you happyour society is not set up to find contentment, so it is our responsibility to cultivate it in our own lives.

She says that contentment is more about wanting everything you already have rather than having everything you want. “It’s the ability to look at what’s already enough in your life and derive pleasure from that,” she says.

Read more: Why burnout makes you feel like you can’t think straight

The pursuit of happiness creates stress

Many Western countries, especially the U.S., tend to associate happiness with acquisition and achievement, while Scandinavian countries equate happiness with appreciation, Feliciano says. “It’s about finding satisfaction in the smaller things in life,” she says. The focus is also on the relationship.

Pleasure and connection are also encouraged as a culture. In countries like Finland, people are given more time for things like relaxing, cycling or spending time with family because their average working week is shorter. While the work week in Finland is 40 hours, the average American ends up working about seven hours beyond what is considered full-time, for a total of 47 hours per week, according to Gallup.

Clinical psychologist Reed Deitzman says that achieving continuous satisfaction in Western capitalist society is difficult, if not impossible. In some ways, being human directly opposes contentment because this trait is not rewarded by evolution.

In the US, in particular, we are constantly looking at metrics that help us advance from an early age. Testing begins in kindergarten, and children quickly learn that progress is more important than learning. And we carry this attitude into adulthood.

“All high school students are doing is checking a box to get into a better college, not for their happiness or personal growth,” says Feliciano.

This is your satisfaction brain

Feliciano argues that when our plates are full, we have less mental bandwidth to engage in any kind of assessment because we’re distracted with what we need to do next. We spend too much time in fight-or-flight mode, our sympathetic nervous system preparing for a threat. The rush gets the adrenaline going and while it can be exciting, it’s not good for your body.

People live longer when they do practices like self-compassion and gratitude because it shifts your nervous system back to parasympathetic activation—when your body begins to rest and recover. “This is when we have more cognitive clarity, motivation, and our immune system begins to function optimally,” she says. Contentment comes from paying attention to what we have, and unless we slow down, we are unable to notice the little things that matter.

How to find happiness

Feliciano says you first need to decide what really matters in your life and what brings you joy. “It might sound morbid, but if you were on your deathbed, what would you look back on and wish you had spent the most time doing,” she says. “Take more time for it.”

Clear your morning and start your day with moments of gratitude in whatever form makes sense to you. Maybe it’s prayer, meditation, a mindful walk, or a cup of coffee alone on the couch.

The good news, Deitzman says, is that like fine wine, finding states of happiness and contentment gets easier with age. “Older people know better what works and what doesn’t work in their lives,” he says. When you have succeeded and suffered longer, you know what to do and what not to do to induce a state of contentment. And it’s all about listening to those messages.

Read more: Try these 6 science-based secrets to happiness

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