Have you ever checked every item on your to-do list, hustled all day, only to feel a sense of disquiet when you go to bed? The feeling that you haven’t done enough or could do more and be more can be very disheartening. On the other hand, you may struggle to admit that you are content because you’re afraid that contentment may lead to complacency.
You are not alone. Our culture has twisted the definition of contentment to the point where we are afraid to admit we’re content for fear of being judged lazy.
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. Lao Tzu.
A famous Zen Buddhist parable is about a king who gets lost in the woods and eventually finds his way to a monk’s hut. The monk invites his guest (unaware that he’s the king) into his humble abode, offering him food and shelter for the night.
The next day, the king’s entourage locate him at the hut. As they prepare to return to the palace, the king gifts the monk a huge diamond as a token of gratitude.
Unbeknownst to the king or the monk, a robber, hiding in the bushes outside the monk’s hut, witnesses the diamond-gifting ceremony. As soon as the king’s crew departs, the robber makes his way into the monk’s hut. Treating the robber as another weary, lost traveler, the monk offers him food and shelter for the night.
Overcome by emotion at the monk’s kindness, the robber decides not to steal the diamond. The following day as he gets ready to leave, the monk hands over the diamond to the robber, telling him, “I’m content with my life and have no use for this. Maybe you can find some use for it.”
A stunned robber leaves the hut but comes back shortly after, except this time, he’s looking to learn about the treasure the monk deemed more valuable than a diamond—contentment.
The myth of contentment
An oft-touted and encouraged behavior in the productivity space is the need for “continuous improvement.” While that seems admirable—we could all do with a bit (a lot?) of improvement—there is an implied and underlying assumption: to improve upon something, you need to be discontent with the status quo.
Why else would you want to improve upon something if you’re already content with the way they are now?
This thinking is so deeply ingrained in our culture that many of us, myself included, perceive contentment as a euphemism for lack of ambition or, if I’m being brutally honest, laziness.
We assume people say they are content because they need an excuse to sit around and do nothing all day. Their contentment allows them to mindlessly scroll on their phone for hours on end because, after all, there is nothing else they need to be doing.
And, why bother to change the status quo or do anything at all if we are content with the way things are. Right? Wrong.
Why contentment is not complacency
The assumption of equating contentment with laziness, like most assumptions, is just plain wrong.
For starters, being content is way different from being complacent.
Contentment does not mean you stop learning, growing, or being productive. It just means you do all those things from a place of happiness and comfort rather than from fear or anxiety.
When a Jeopardy contestant scores a runaway victory—securing her win before the final Jeopardy round begins, she approaches the final round from a place of contentment rather than dread. This allows her not just to think freely but to approach the final round with equanimity—she will have a good time regardless of whether she gets the question right or wrong.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could approach most of life’s challenges with such composure?
To be content doesn’t mean you don’t desire more; it means you’re thankful for what you have and patient for what’s to come.” Tony Gaskins
But before learning to be content, let’s understand what causes discontent in the first place.
Why do we become discontent?
Here’s the short answer: discontent arises when reality fails to meet expectations.
We have expectations of almost everything and everyone around us: our bosses, partners, children, pets, cars, and even how Google should respond to our searches (quickly and accurately). These expectations are purely figments of our imagination, our fantasies about how everyone and everything should behave or act. Especially towards us.
But when the weather is less than perfect, the deserved promotion at job eludes us, when our loved ones don’t return phone calls, and the dishwasher leaves our glasses still spotty—we start to lose it. In short, when reality deviates from our carefully constructed fantasies, discontent brews.
We start to wallow in a version of “I put so much effort into this (insert job, relationship, appliance here), and what do I get in return?”
To find out why that logic is flawed, here’s another famous Zen story.
The world isn’t out to get you
Sam rows a boat and sees another boat rowing towards him. The driver of the other boat continues to row in Sam’s direction, eventually bumping his boat. Frustrated, Sam yells to the other driver, “Can’t you see where you are going?”
Sam rows a boat and sees another boat headed towards him. This boat is driverless and tough and simply floating in the river. This time, instead of yelling at the empty boat, Sam goes around the boat, doing his best to avoid a collision.
According to Zen Buddhism, we should steer our life assuming that we’re dealing with empty boats and that people and the world, in general, aren’t intentionally out to get us.
The moral of the story is that we can be content only when we stop tying our happiness to external actions or reactions.
Unreturned phone calls, overlooked promotions, inopportune weather, bad cell service, etc., are par for the course. They don’t happen to us. They just happen. Our contentment depends on us understanding this critical difference.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, in response to the sullen and dejected mood of the people, American actor William Rogers said this:
Nobody’s got much money, but smokehouses are full of meat, woodpiles are high, and we got Bill Murray* to look after our troubles, so there’s nothing to do this winter but hibernate and listen over the radio to Wall Street wailing. – Will Rogers, Sep 1931
*: Not that Bill Murray. This quote is from 1931, before the Ghostbusters actor was born.
True contentment is finding that inner peace that’s undisturbed by external influences. It’s about not throwing a hissy fit when your spouse doesn’t acknowledge the wonderful meal you cooked or when you are overlooked for a promotion at work.
I read an article about aging in which Robert, a fit older gentleman, describes how the act of aging starts to change perspective in life. In the piece, Robert described how a brain seizure led to his friend being hospitalized and ultimately becoming legally blind. When Robert called his friend to express his sympathy, the friend told him, “It could have been worse. I could have been deaf instead of blind.”
Finding happiness in the little things and not letting external factors sway our inner peace is what contentment really is.
Learning to be content
Like Sisyphus, condemned by Zeus to keep rolling a boulder up a hill only for it to keep rolling down each time, we are constantly searching for more—more stuff, more partying, more money, more work.
The hedonic treadmill of life will keep us wanting more. The only way out of this cycle is to teach ourselves to be content by noticing and appreciating the little things in life. And that requires mindfulness.
In a culture that encourages busyness, mindfulness isn’t easy nor natural any more. Here are some techniques to incorporate mindfulness into our lives so we can slow down, take notice, and be appreciative of life itself. Contentment will simply follow.
Content. Then what?
Once we reach that elusive state of contentment, does it mean we abandon everything to sit atop a mountain or go lie on the beach?
Not sure if this is good news or bad news, but the answer is No. As in, “No, you can’t sit endlessly on the beach sipping cocktails just because you feel content.”
Contentment does not mean you freeze in place or stop learning or growing. It simply means you aren’t reliant on an external source to make you feel happy and peaceful.
Instead, it means you work to improve your life and others’ without tying your sense of self-worth to the result of that effort.
The best time to improve is when you are content
Let’s say you’ve been procrastinating studying for a test. Has it ever gotten easier to study under the stress of a looming test deadline? Isn’t it much easier to prepare when you feel content and in control of your time?
Contrary to popular perception, habit change and self-improvement are best undertaken from a place of contentment rather than disillusionment.
Any gambler who has already lost a lot of money starts to place increasingly risky and irrational bets as time progresses because he’s simply trying to break even at that point. Remember, when the stakes are high, our brains invoke the flight-or-fight response and go into survival rather than nurturing mode.
Sure, being disgruntled with the status quo may motivate us to act. But if we don’t succeed at first, i.e., our actions don’t beget the results we expect, we are likely to get way more disgruntled than we were when we started.
Disillusionment does not have to end in despair, but it often does.
On the other hand, positivity spurs more positivity.
Ironically, there is no greater achievement in life than contentment—a state where the word achievement has no meaning.
Being content is not the same as being complacent. Nor does contentment mean you stop learning and growing. On the contrary, one positive change fuels another. It is much easier to undertake lofty personal growth projects when you are already feeling content with yourself and life in general.
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. Epicurus.