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Contentment: A Countercultural Concept


08Jul 2007

Contentment. This is one character quality  you don’t hear much about these days. In fact, being content is really a countercultural concept.  I haven’t recently (or ever, actually) heard a commercial say, “Keep what you have.  Fix it up a little or just make it work a while longer. You don’t need to go buy something new.” We are bombarded with messages to not be content — we need the newest or latest version (“new and improved”) of xyz, or we really can’t be happy in our current modest home, or we are enticed to take the family on fairly expensive trips or cruises.  None of these things, by themselves, are wrong obviously. But at some point it seems that it would be good to be content with what we have.

Think about the various aspects of your life — your home (or apartment), your current vehicle(s), the community where you live, your sound system(s), your spouse or your single marital status, your clothes, the food you eat, it can go on and on. Which of these do you really like?  Which are just “ok”?  Maybe there is some part that you really dislike.  But how much of our desire for something new or different is actually driven by comparison with others — rather than just a pure need?

This is a personal issue for me, partly because of where I am in my own life development.  Up to this point in time, I have primarily been driven to look for “more” — have new and different experiences, try to develop a better job situation, expand my impact in the world (not so much, have the latest and greatest things).  But recently I am realizing the need to slow down, enjoy life in the moment, and be content with where I am in life.

For me, contentment is closely tied to gratitude.  When I stop and am thankful about my life — my health, the home I have, my wife and kids, my job — then I am less likely to feel driven to “do more”.  But interestingly, almost always, there is a downside to each aspect of life as well.  For example, I have really quite good health (and usually sleep well, which I really appreciate) but I have a few nagging pains here and there.  Or, I love my home in the country, but it also means my car is almost always dirty because I live on a dirt road.  I have a great wife and wonderful kids, but we have our struggles and challenges at times.  And there is a lot I love about the work I do, but I also get tired from the emotional demands and the hassles associated with traveling.  So there are pro’s and con’s to each part of life.  But I can choose to focus on the positive aspects and experience the quiet peace that goes with it, or I can become consumed by the negatives and live life angry, irritable and unhappy.

The problem is — we really aren’t taught how to be content in our culture.  And the bombardment from advertising can wear you down. So let’s look at some practical ways we can “try on” or practice the viewpoint of contentment.

1. Think of an item you have been considering purchasing. Now tell yourself, “You know, I really don’t need a new ________. Sure, it might be nice to have, but is buying and having it really going to make me happier? Or significantly change my daily life experience? I think I will wait for a few weeks and see if I really think I need it then.”

2. Think about where you live (either your actual house/apartment or your community). Spend some time making a list (at least mental, if not written) about what you enjoy or appreciate about your living situation. If you are really dissatisfied, think about others in the world who do not have clean water, don’t have consistent electricity (and no air conditioning), or who live in a place where their physical safety is at risk. Most of us really have it quite good.

3. When you start to complain or think negatively about your daily life responsibilities (job, home responsibilities, schoolwork), say out loud to a friend, coworker or family member: “You know, even though I have to ________ and I really don’t like that part of my daily life, I am sure glad I don’t have a job where I have to ________________ (fill in the blank with any nasty circumstance thousands of people deal with daily — work 10-12 hours a day/7 days a week; not being able to find work to support themselves or their family; do manual labor in the hot sun for little pay, etc.).

4. If you are not real happy in your current relationships situation (family, marriage, living alone, significant dating relationship), stop and take note of all of the neat people that have impacted your life positively — your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends. Most of us have had the privilege of being in a relationship where others truly cared about us.

5. Be aware of the potential to compare your life situation negatively with those around you. One response I try to practice in my life is when I hear about something really neat for someone else (they bought a new car, they sold their business for a lot of money, they are going on an exciting vacation), I try to respond: “That is great.  I am really happy for them.”  (It is important to not follow up with additional snide or sarcastic comments, however!)

I am not trying to be a sappy psychologist here, or just move us to “think positive thoughts and your life will be joyous and peaceful” –but I guess I am trying to nudge us that way. And interestingly, there is a secondary benefit of contentment as well — we tend to spend less money because we aren’t trying to buy things or experiences to make us happy.

In fact, Benjamin Franklin said “Contentment makes poor men rich, and discontentment makes rich men poor.” I know I have seen both poor people who are quite happy, and extremely wealthy people who are not only miserable but they keep pursuing riches and eventually lose their material wealth, as well.

So try it. Practice some new thoughts and speech. Be aware of how much you are bombarded with messages to be discontent with your current life circumstances and laugh at them. And see if life isn’t a bit more pleasant and peaceful for you.

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