War, disease, poverty, natural disasters, and other forms of human suffering have existed throughout history. While in many ways modern life is much less difficult than it was for our ancestors, the world can still feel bleak at times. How can we create and sustain a sense of optimism and hope during challenging periods? The themes I’ve gathered here reflect timeless wisdom that people have used for centuries to overcome adversity. I offer them in a series of contrasting but rhythmic pairs, like waves that surge and recede.

Seek Activity and Stillness

“To fill the hour—that is happiness,” wrote transcendentalist leader Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1844 essay “Experience,” encapsulating our culture’s belief in the value of productivity. Indeed, tasks like preparing a meal, paying bills, or trimming the weeds not only make our lives function smoothly but can also bring us a sense of accomplishment.

While being productive is healthy, so is its opposite. Resting and refraining from activity can be immensely restorative. I learned this two summers ago when I broke my wrist and was forced to do less. One morning while resting on the sofa, I heard a bird singing as though for the first time. It was extraordinary. What had my type-A personality been missing all those years?

If your life has more activity than stillness, try sitting and simply noticing. What do you see, hear, feel, smell, or taste? The sound of a dog barking? The warmth of your breath? The texture of the sofa you’re sitting on? The light reflecting off the window?

Slowing down, I sometimes experience a “holy opening.” As my inner churning eases, I hear a voice saying just what I need to hear, This too shall pass, or All will be well. These spiritual gifts don’t arrive when I’m rushing around.

Balance Work and Play

A man I know was left an enormous inheritance during college. Under no pressure to earn a living, he drifted for years and now feels very dissatisfied with his life. Paid or unpaid, work can provide us with a sense of purpose and meaning. It can also provide a way to think beyond ourselves and contribute to the larger good.

Play is equally important—and not always easy in the U.S., with our “time is money” culture. When I get too driven, I remember a line attributed to the Talmud: “We will be called to account for all permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy.”

If you’re someone who has trouble remembering how to play, you’re not alone. Experts suggest thinking back on what you liked to do when you were a kid. Crafts, games, music, sports—it really doesn’t matter what your pleasure is, as long as you’re enjoying yourself.

Enjoy Outside and In

Nature is powerful medicine that has a huge impact on our physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Whatever happens in the larger world, hummingbirds still seek nectar, spiders weave webs, buds blossom, and leaves fall. The natural world reminds us of the universal, timeless rhythms and patterns of which we are a part.

To enjoy the benefits of nature, we don’t need to live in the mountains or by the ocean. However, we do need regular exposure to green spaces—a garden, a park, or even a tree-lined street. As little as 10 minutes in a natural setting provides benefits. I try to step outside early in the day to smell the morning air, listen to the birds, and notice the changing light.

A recent study at Stanford University found a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced anxiety. I can vouch for this. During a difficult period in my life, every weekday during my lunch break I’d visit a tree planted three blocks away. Standing under its gnarly branches, I’d gaze up at it, absorbing its strength. A few minutes later, comforted and bolstered, I’d stride back to the office.

The plus side of going out is coming back in to the shelter of our homes. Scottish author Kenneth Grahame captured the tenderness we may feel toward our homes in his 1908 childhood classicThe Wind in the Willows. In one passage, Mole, during a long day’s outing, catches a whiff of his former home, triggering an ache to see it again. Grahame writes, “Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work.”

If we’re lucky, our homes, whether shabby or fancy, are like Mole’s: safe spaces where we can be dry and warm and where we can eat, sleep, laugh, and cry.

Seemingly minor aspects of daily life, unique to each of us, can provide contentment, comfort, and peace.

Embrace Solitude and Company

Raised in families, tribes, villages, and communities, human beings are social animals. Strong relationships improve every aspect of our lives, providing meaning, support, stimulation, and self-worth.

Conversely, research shows that the lack of social connection is a public health threat that’s linked to shorter life spans, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Isolation can be as damaging to one’s health as smoking.

You probably know intuitively whether you have the right balance of interaction and solitude. If you spend hours every day in meetings with coworkers, your heart may crave quiet time spent reading, writing, or just staring out the window at the passing clouds.

On the other hand, when you find yourself alone for long stretches of time, you might benefit from more interaction. When I broke my wrist, I felt very isolated because my husband was out of town, my friends didn’t live within walking distance, and I couldn’t drive. That’s when I came to appreciate what sociologists call loose ties—casual connections like neighbors, letter carriers, or cashiers. I was touched when a neighbor I barely knew offered to open cans for me and buy me groceries.

Being comfortable by yourself is equally important. As the seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Value Learning the New and Savoring the Familiar

Learning new things offers both long-term and immediate health benefits. After I signed up for a singing class, I was filled with excitement, only later discovering that my reaction had a biological basis: My brain was flooded with dopamine, the “happy” neurotransmitter. When we explore new areas, our brain chemistry rewards us with feelings of pleasure, which in turn motivates us to keep going. From our brain’s point of view, taking classes or learning new skills is not an indulgence but a worthwhile investment of time and money.

Savoring repeated, familiar joys also provides benefits. Seemingly minor aspects of daily life, unique to each of us, can provide contentment, comfort, and peace. For me, it’s preparing a favorite recipe; for my husband, it’s doing the daily crossword; for others, it’s the warmth of their dog or cat curled up against them.

Even during stressful times, you probably experience joyful moments punctuating the day. A child’s laughter, a burst of red in a flower bed, the aroma of soup cooking—these small moments of joy can seem trivial, but they’re not. Take note of them! They balance the dark with the light and help to build resilience.

These timeless ideas are ours for the taking, right here and right now. They require no planning, no driving, and no credit card. Whether you need more activity or stillness, more interaction or solitude, it’s available to you. Pause, take a breath, relax into a chair, and notice the leaves fluttering outside the window. Even in difficult times, our world is abundant and blessings abound.

About the Author

Louisa Rogers is a leadership trainer, coach, and writer who specializes in spirituality, wellness, family, food, expat living, and travel. She and her husband, Barry Evans, divide their lives between the town of Eureka in Northern California and Guanajuato in central Mexico. Follow her on Facebook (@louisa.rogers.56). 


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