I have learned to be content, but it has not been easy. It has taken time. Years, in fact. While I still struggle with feelings of discontent, for the most part, I’ve found the type of happiness where – if I died tomorrow – I could be happy with my life.
Busy and the Western Mindset
For many people, particularly goal-focused Americans, contentment means being busy. Being busy demonstrates to the world we are doing things, creating something, achieving a goal.
That sounds good, but many people have reached the point where busyness has taken over their lives. It’s no longer about “keeping up with the Joneses” but about creating an illusion of success and importance. The illusion frequently counts more than reality, even if it doesn’t make a person content or happy. In fact, it’s often not even other people we are trying to fool, but ourselves.
Busyness is much in vogue these days. You’re nobody unless you have a crossed-off daily to-do list, a one-year plan and a five-year plan. Every moment and action are nicely scheduled for us. Much of these are in pursuit of a better life.
The question is, better by whose definition? Does a large home in the suburbs and a country club membership bring contentment – or simply more people that need to be impressed? Does that no then mean an even larger house and a more exclusive club membership?
When does it end? How long do we go chasing after something elusive? This in a never-ending, insane pursuit. Better to chase sanity.
Working toward contentment is the breath of life, but how long do we continue to focus on what is lacking in our lives instead of appreciating what we already have? Complaining about the bills? How about being happy about having a job to pay them? Rent high and outrageous? Be grateful for a place to live.
Do We Really Know What We Want?
What sense does it make to climb the ladder of life if it’s sitting on the wrong wall? Each rung climbed can represent wasted time unless that ladder is climbing toward the metaphorical fruit we want to pick.
You need to know what you want. As we work toward each goal, we should feel a sense of accomplishment. But is that truly the case? Are our goals our own?
One way we set ourselves up for frustration and unhappiness is by setting unattainable goals. Desiring to end world hunger and hoping for world peace are not easily attainable objectives. This can lead individuals to feel like failures as their negative feelings grow.
Instead of contentment, the hard work they put into unattainable goals leads to feelings of failure. Eventually, they may give up altogether. Interestingly, working on a smaller goal – such as buying a sandwich for a homeless person – would bring a sense of contentment and achievement but is frequently rejected as “doing too little.”
Contentment and sanity can lie in working less but achieving more.
Most of us grow up with certain expectations. Some of these are made quite clear from the time we are born. “My son, the doctor.” We live our lives as planned, and we don’t consider other options, even if something else would make us much more content.
To remain content and sane in this world, we first must know what we want.
How to Know What We Truly Want
Contentment lies in achieving our own dreams, not someone else’s. Too many people simply do not have a clue what will make them happy. This is not the best way to live. We only get one chance at life. Why not live it sanely instead of stumbling through it like a drunk through a dark alley?
Ask your future self some key questions. Know where you want to be. Make sure that ladder is on the right wall.
Here are some ways to find out if you are living your own life or someone else’s.
Consider what you would do if you were not chained to any societal rules. Would you be an artist instead of a doctor? Would you travel the world instead of scrambling for the corner office? Learn to think selfishly about your life.
To be clear, “selfish” in this sense rarely involves material possession. Make sure you’re being selfish about what is really important to you as an individual. Sometimes that might involve a material possession, but that should only be the case when that material possession is important to accomplish more important things.
Assess Your Life
We take for granted the way we are “supposed” to feel. If we have a family, a nice house, a good job, we are “supposed” to be content. By being totally honest with yourself, you can learn how you really feel, not how you are “supposed” to feel.
Know You Can Control Your Life
Much of life seems random or luck. However, contentment and happiness are all about each choice we make. We can control what we do and the direction our life takes. Perhaps the best first step is to examine every “I should,” “I must,” “I have to,” and “I can’t” that we live with. Another person’s “should” may not be the same for you.
Peer pressure can be a force. We want to be individuals who are actually like everyone around us to be socially accepted. That may apply to people of any age. If you live in suburbia, you should want to play golf instead of visiting museums. If you are young, how can you survive without a Facebook and Instagram account, even if you prefer to spend your time with a good book, instead? By being yourself and following your own desires.
The secret of contentment lies in being genuine. And there is an added bonus. Accepting yourself helps you stand out and be noticed. It makes you someone special.
How Not to Define Success
Many of us fail to define success correctly. Volumes have been written about how to be a success at work, make lots of money, and achieve status among our peers. It’s one of life’s “shoulds.” It’s what we should be aiming for. Society tells us so.
In reality, genuine success does not come from the external world. It is determined by our internal life and the choices we make.
- Too many of us seek validation from the outside, be it from a job title to a “like” on Instagram. An entire lifestyle has developed through social media influencers, as if the number of followers and likes determined your actual worth. And to some unfortunate people, it does. This search for validation from people we don’t even know does not lead to contentment. Success is defined by our inner strength and not by the number of emojis we collect in a day.
- Career success these days is high on most people’s agenda. Their entire sense of self-worth is tied to their job, their job title, and/or the company for which they work. Few realize that on the way up that magical ladder, so much happiness is being sacrificed – time with family, time spent on yourself, the ability to do other good and useful things. When we prepare to die, it is not the corner office that fills our mind, but the things we haven’t done that we wished we had. Would we wish for one more day at the office or for one more day sharing a meal with our loved ones? A life lived without regrets is a contented life.
- It may be almost inevitable to occasionally compare yourself to others. You lose your job while your friend gets a promotion. No one notices you at the party while your neighbor is surrounded by wishful admirers. It’s easy to mentally stomp your feet and declare, “This isn’t fair!” Know what your triggers and weak point are. Is it your job, your popularity, your income? Do they trigger envy? Instead of attempting to keep up with others, develop your own uniqueness.
There will always be someone better looking, wealthier, more popular, and more successful than you. When you compare yourself to others, you don’t get the whole picture of all your strengths and accomplishments. Maybe you didn’t make salesperson of the year, but are you the one person everyone knows they can call when in need? That is quite an accomplishment.
Instead of playing a game of comparison, embrace your strengths and learn from those that do certain things better than you. That neighbor that outshines you at every party? Ask her for makeup and wardrobe tips. She’ll know. The coworker that received the promotion – that is someone you want on your side instead of shunning. As President Roosevelt stated, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
What It Means to be Content
We all want to be content; this contentment happens when we are happy with the way our life is going. And it’s so easy. When the circumstances in which we exist are going well, we can be content. Anyone can.
I am reminded of an old woman who resided at a nursing home where I was working as a social worker. She was bed ridden. She could barely hear. Her brother, many years before, had cut most of her toes off in a violent family dispute. Despite all of this, living day to day in a hospital bed being wheeled to her room, the television, and periodic activities should could barely take part in – she was one of the happiest souls I’ve ever met.
We rarely control the circumstances of our lives. Still, we can be content, even if things are not going well. And everyone will have times like that. It’s an almost sure bet.
If the situation can be changed, then we should change it. But what if it cannot? Certain circumstances are beyond our control. How can we feel content? Mostly, we retain our positivity by understanding that circumstances are temporary and will change.
Perhaps the best example of surviving bad circumstances with contentment is entrepreneur Chris Garner (The protagonist of the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness”).
Garner was a homeless father trying to raise a son alone. Sometimes, the two slept in the subway bathroom when the homeless shelters were filled. When Mr. Garner was offered an unpaid internship with a brokerage firm where dozens of apprentices would be competing for just one job, he took the risk and accepted.
Through hard work, Mr. Garner won that one, single, available job. The homeless man who slept in a public toilet is now worth $70 billion. When asked on a television show how he survived those circumstances, he calmly replied, “I knew it wouldn’t last.”
5 Ways to Learn How to Be Content
Like most good things in life, contentment can be learned. It’s a surety that we will face difficult days and disappointments. We all will experience feelings of anger and frustration. Still, we can live contently and happily. Here are some suggestions.
- When they are feeling discontented, most people attempt to fill the lack in their lives with substitutions. There is an actual term, “retail therapy,” when we attempt to shop our way to happiness. Shop till you drop works until the credit card bill arrives. People also “stuff” down their malcontent with food. One wonders how much obesity is the result of not being content.
- As we have already discussed, we need to stop comparing ourselves to those around us. A good start would be to limit social media, where people love to display their [usually fake] perfection (yes fake; even actors photoshop), their new house or new fancy car.
- Be grateful for the present. A grateful mindset will beat envy and malcontent every time. No one can have everything. But we can all appreciate what we have. When you face life with gratitude, you are far less likely to feel resentment against others. Many experts recommend keeping a gratitude journal. Each evening, make a few notes about the things you are grateful for. You’ll be surprised how good your life actually is.
- Being happy is a choice. Many people wait for the right circumstances – a raise, a new romantic partner, a new house, etc. – to be happy. Make the choice to be happy now.
- Find a passion. People who are passionate about something, whether it is gardening, cooking, volunteering, or some other endeavor, invariably develop an innate sense of contentment. Passion will do that to a person.
Is It Okay to be Content With Your Life?
People can sometimes think learning to be content means giving up, not growing, or becoming stagnant. It is good to be content, but content does not mean never striving for more.
Most contented people do have goals. Does having goals and wanting more from life contradict content? For these people, it’s not about winning the gold medal or reaching the top of the ladder. It’s every step along the journey that is to be savored. They are lifelong learners. Always pushing themselves to become better at whatever their goals are.
Those goals are not the goal, however. That may sound contradictory, but the journey is the goal itself.
The circumstances in our lives rarely cause discontent. It’s the choices we make and how we handle the outcomes. Most of the time, we chose to remain at a bad job, eat too much and gain weight, or deliberately act in ways to drive people away. During these times, we focus on everything that is a bad in our lives. But if we act on changing the circumstances, the focus returns to the possibilities that are always open to us.
That is the reason being content and being open to change are not contradictory but will walk hand in hand. We have one life. We can choose contentment or misery. It is entirely up to us. Being content means being okay with life as it happens and knowing that we have the power to create changes. Contentment is not about creating the illusion of busyness. It is all about creating the reality of happiness.
While I stumble at times, I have learned to be content with my life. Have you? Where have your hurdles been? How did you overcome them?