“I just want to be happy.”
How many times have you said that to yourself over the years? How many times have you found yourself feeling unhappy, wondering why and what you can do to turn it around?
We do back flips to harness that elusive emotion. We desperately strive to make money, buy stuff we don't need, change our appearance, or find the love of our lives.
And we work just as hard trying to prevent unhappiness by keeping the bad things at bay. If we control our lives properly, maybe we won't have to deal with debt, divorce, illness, disappointment, failure, or stress.
Hundreds of books have been written about happiness and how to create it. Researchers have studied it and found the areas in the brain that stimulate it. Even our founding fathers proclaimed the pursuit of it as an inalienable right.
But that joyful emotion has a way of slipping in and out of our lives inexplicably. Some days we are brimming with it. Other days it feels we'll never see it again.
Merriam-Webster defines happy as “feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.” Pleasure and enjoyment. On the scale of good feelings, these are peak experiences. But is it possible to feel pleasure and enjoyment all the time? Can you feel it while washing the car? Doing the taxes? Visiting your in-laws? Maybe. But not likely. For most of us, these peak experiences aren't daily events.
I think we long for the feelings of pleasure and enjoyment even more because they are so elusive. Most of these experiences are externally driven by life circumstances. But in between those experiences, must we settle for unhappiness or boredom?
No, there is another way. We can choose contentment as a way of life rather than constantly longing for our fix of happiness.
Again according to Merriam-Webster, content means “pleased and satisfied : not needing more.” Now I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, “But I'll always need more. I'll always want to improve my life and circumstances.”
However, choosing contentment as a way of life doesn't exclude self-improvement or having goals. But it does exclude the constant longing. It excludes pinning your satisfaction with the life you have now on some future achievement, material thing, or situation.
Contentment as a way of life means you actively choose to focus on the beauty, joy, love, creativity, and even the pain or sorrow of the moment without resistance. You accept what you are experiencing without negative judgements. You embrace the breadth of the human experience in all of its expressions.
Contentment may not be as dramatic as happiness, but it affords a more reliable sense of ease and peace of mind. It allows us to savor life fully, moment to moment, without experiencing the mental and emotional suffering of longing for something else.
How can you create a life of contentment? Here are some thoughts:
Live with less.
Stop acquiring things. In fact, simplify what you have. Remove the mental and physical clutter from your life and focus on those things which truly enhance your life. We are trained to believe that the cure for unhappiness and discontent is to purchase something. But material things never address or cure the root of our discontentment. They only clutter our space and empty our bank accounts. Rather than returning to the habit of spending when you feel bad, take the time to examine why you truly feel bad and discontent.
See the good.
We spend far more time immersed in negative thoughts about our lives than we do seeing the beauty and good all around us. We focus on our problems, our lack, our suffering rather than allowing ourselves to focus on gratitude and joy for the amazing blessings in our lives. When you find yourself longing, ruminating about the bad stuff, stop yourself and intentionally choose something or someone you are grateful for and dwell on positive thoughts about this. Allow yourself to soak in the contentment and peace of gratitude.
Be in nature.
It's hard to be unhappy when you are outside in a beautiful setting. Go for a hike, a bike ride, a day at the beach, a drive to the mountains. Have a picnic. Sit by a stream. When you are outside, take a few minutes to close your eyes. Breath deeply and listen to the sounds of nature. The birds, the wind, the rustle of leaves, water lapping. Time in nature reminds us that contentment is just on the other side of our front door.
Give up comparisons.
We look at what others have, how they look, who we perceive them to be, and we see ourselves as lacking in some way. Comparing yourself to others inevitably leads to discontentment and unhappiness. Most of the time, our perceptions are skewed anyway. Focus on the person you are and the person YOU want to become — not some image or standard defined by others. Be true to yourself and stop worrying about how other people live their lives.
Another big source of discontentment is trying to control the people around us. We have standards or ideals for what we believe is right or good, and then we try to impose our standards on our spouse, children, family, and friends. We want them to think the way we think, believe what we believe, dress the way we think is appropriate, and spend money on things that are our priorities. When they don't comply, we get upset and judge them as wrong or bad. Allow those around you to be themselves. Stop judging and accept them. If you simply can't accept their choices or actions, or if they are making immoral or unethical choices, then release them from your life.
You are who you are right now. Accept that person. Just as you shouldn't judge those around you, don't judge yourself. You may not be your ideal self at this moment, but you can't evolve into your ideal self when you are self-critical and shaming. Accept and love yourself today even as you strive to become better tomorrow. Remind yourself of all of the great and small things you've done to get to this point in your life. Acknowledge the love, kindness, and generosity you've shown. Commend your own hard work, creativity, and determination.
Contentment doesn't mean you stagnate. You can define who you want to be and what you want in life and work toward that while remaining content in the here and now. In fact your efforts toward growth and self-improvement can provide a great deal of joy and contentment. Every action you take toward improving your life can be a fulfilling and satisfying experience. Be content in your daily work, and when those moments of pure happiness grace us, we can welcome them from a place of calm and peace.
People often confuse happiness and contentment, and perhaps they are just different shades of the same positive emotion. However, mindful contentment practiced daily becomes a habit that fosters more and more peak happiness experiences.
As you are consciously satisfied with the life you have, you're in a more confident, centered position to enhance your future. You see clearly what you want, what is most important, and how to create that in your life.
From a position of contentment, you can build a life that is not only peaceful and satisfying, but also one that draws you toward choices and circumstances that afford a deeper level of pleasure and enjoyment based on living authentically and mindfully.