A Guide to Practical Contentment
We need much less than we think we need. ― Maya Angelou
A lot of people search for ways to find happiness, but I’ve found the idea of contentment to be more important than happiness.
Why contentment over happiness? A couple of important reasons:
- Happiness can go up or down each day (or moment), but contentment is something more stable.
- We tend to seek to increase happiness by adding things (food, excitement, a warm bath, time with a loved one) but contentment is a skill that allows you to subtract things and still be content.
- Contentment can actually be a good place to start as you make changes (changes and contentment might seem paradoxical to some, but hear me out).
What is contentment? For me, it’s really about being happy with who you are. Which I wasn’t for many years, and I think most people are not.
In my life, I’ve learned to be better at the skill of contentment (not that I’m perfect, but I’ve learned). I am happy with my life. I am happy with myself. I’m happy with where I am professionally, and don’t seek to add more readers or pageviews or income. I’m happy wherever I am.
And while many might say, “Sure, you can say that now that you’ve reached a certain level of success,” I think that’s wrong. Many people who achieve success don’t find contentment, and are always driven to want more, and are unhappy with themselves. Many people who are poor or don’t have a “successful” career have also found contentment. And what’s more, I think finding contentment has actually driven any success that I’ve found — it helped me get out of debt, it helped me change my habits, it has made me a better husband, father, friend and collaborator, perhaps even a better writer.
Worst of all, with the attitude of “you can be content because you’re successful”, is that people who say this are dismissing the path of contentment … when it’s something they can do right now. Not later, when they reach certain goals or a certain level of financial success. Now.
Let’s take a look at the path of contentment, how it’s a good place for habit change, and how to get started down the path.
The Path of Contentment
We start out in life thinking that we’re awesome. We can dance in public as 5-year-olds, and not care what others think of us. By the time we’re adults, that’s been driven out of us, by peers and parents and the media and embarrassing situations.
As adults, we doubt ourselves. We judge ourselves badly. We are critical of our bodies, of ourselves as people, of our lack of discipline, of all our faults. We don’t like our lives.
As a result, we try to improve this lacking self, try to get better because we suck so much. Or, we doubt our ability to get better, and are very unhappy. Or we sabotage our attempts at change, because we don’t really believe we can do it.
This self-dislike results in worse relationships, a stagnant career, unhappiness with life, complaints about everything, and often unhealthy habits like eating junk food, drinking too much alcohol, not exercising, shopping too much, being addicted to video games or the Internet.
So what’s the path to being content with yourself and your life?
The first problem is if you don’t trust yourself. That’s an important area to work with.
Your relationship with yourself is like your relationship with anyone else. If you have a friend who is constantly late and breaking his word, not showing up when he says he will, eventually you’ll stop trusting that friend. It’s like that with yourself, too. It’s hard to like someone you don’t trust, and it’s hard to like yourself if you don’t trust yourself.
So work on this trust with yourself (I give some practical steps in the bottom section below). Increase it slowly, and eventually you’ll trust yourself to be awesome.
The second problem is that you judge yourself badly. You compare yourself to an unreal ideal, in all areas. You want a beautiful model’s body. You want to achieve certain goals, personally and professionally. You want to travel the world and learn languages and learn a musical instrument and be an amazing chef and have an amazing social life and the perfect spouse and kids and incredible achievements and be the fittest person on the planet. Of course, those are completely realistic ideals, right?
And when we have these ideals, we compare ourselves to them, and we always measure up badly.
The path to contentment, then, is to stop comparing ourselves to these ideals. Stop judging ourselves. Let go of the ideals. And gradually learn to trust ourselves.
Read on for the practical steps.
Changing Habits and Contentment
Before we get to the practical steps, let’s talk about contentment and change. Many people think that if you’re content, you’re just going to lay on a beach doing nothing all day. Why do anything if you’re content with the way things are?
But actually contentment is a way better place to start making changes than unhappiness with who you are.
Most of us are driven by the need or desire to improve ourselves, to fix certain things about ourselves that we don’t like. While that can definitely be a place for driving some changes, it’s not a good place to start from with those kinds of changes.
If you feel there’s something wrong with you that needs to be improved, you’re going to be driven to improve yourself, but you may or may not succeed. Let’s say you fail in your habit change. Then you start to feel worse about yourself, and you’re then on a downward spiral where every time you try to improve, you fail, and so you feel worse about yourself, and then you’re on the downward spiral. You start to self-sabotage your changes, because you really don’t believe that you can do them. Based on past evidence, you don’t trust yourself that you can do it. And that makes you feel worse.
That’s if you fail. But let’s say you happen to succeed, and you’re really good at succeeding. So you succeed — maybe you lose weight, and so maybe you don’t feel as bad about your body now.
But what happens is, if you start in this place of fixing what’s wrong with you, you keep looking for what else is wrong with you, what else you need to improve. So maybe now feel like you don’t have enough muscles, or six pack abs, or you think your calves don’t look good, or if it’s not about your body, you’ll find something else.
So it’s this never-ending cycle for your entire life. You never reach it. If you start with a place of wanting to improve yourself and feeling stuck, even if you’re constantly successful and improving, you’re always looking for happiness from external sources. You don’t find the happiness from within, so you look to other things.
If you’re externally looking for happiness, it’s easy to get too into food, or shopping, or partying, or overwork, to try to be happy.
If instead, you can find contentment within and not need external sources of happiness, then you’ll have a reliable source of happiness. I find that to be a much better place to be than relying on external sources of happiness.
A lot of people wonder, “If you find contentment, won’t you just lay around on the beach, not improving the world, not doing anything?” But I think that’s a misunderstanding of what contentment is.
You can be content and lay around, but you can also be content and want to help others. You can be content and also compassionate to others, and want to help them. You can be happy with who you are, but at the same time want to help other people and ease their suffering. And that way, you can offer yourself to the world and do great works in the world, but not necessarily need that to be happy.
Even if for some reason, your work was taken away from you, you’d still have that inner contentment.
Practical Steps to Contentment
The question is how to get there. How to go from being unhappy with yourself to being content?
The path is learning a few crucial skills:
1. Build self-trust. The only way to fix a lack of trust is in small steps. If you the unreliable friend wants to rebuild trust with you, the right way is not for him to say, “Now, trust me with your life” — instead, it’s to start building trust in small steps. Do little things, and see if the trust is held up. Over time, you open yourself up more and more.
What I usually do to build trust is to start with small things that I’m totally certain I can do — drinking a glass of water every day is an easy example. I want to drink more water, so I set a bunch of reminders to drink a glass of water when I want to wake up. If you can keep that up for a week or two, it helps you trust yourself. Most people try to change hard stuff, fail, and then the trust is gone. So start with the small stuff.
2. Notice your ideals. The other problem for finding contentment is that we’re constantly feeling bad about ourselves, because the reality of ourselves does not meet some ideal we hold. That ideal could come from mass media, looking at magazines and movie stars. Or it could just come from some idea about how perfect we should be. When it comes to productivity or how our bodies should look.
The truth is, the reality of ourselves is not bad, it’s only in bad in relation to the ideal that we have about ourselves. When we let go of the ideal, we’re left with the reality that can be judged as perfectly great. It’s a unique human being who is beautiful in its own way.
So ask if you’re feeling bad about who you are and how you did. If so, it’s because of the ideal. To recognize that takes awareness first. Notice your ideals.
3. Let go of the ideals. Once we notice the ideals, we need to stop comparing ourselves to them. Let go of the ideal. The only way to let go of the ideal is to see the pain that it’s causing in yourself and realize you want to end that pain, and letting go of an ideal that’s hurting you is self-compassion. Watch the pain. Be compassionate with yourself and stop causing pain in yourself with this process of comparing yourself with ideals.
By Leo Babauta, Zen Habits