We trade many moments, and days, and years of our lives pursuing happiness, and things that would bring happiness. Aristotle proposed that happiness is the highest good because it is the only thing that we seek for itself. The ultimate goal of everything that we do, and everything that we seek to acquire, is happiness. We work hard, we accumulate possessions, and we help others because, in the end, we expect these things to make us happy.
But happiness is fleeting. It cannot be sustained indefinitely. Receiving a big promotion at work will make us happy for a time, but that happiness fades as we grow accustomed to our new position and salary. Buying a new car makes us happy for a time, but that happiness fades after we drive it for a while. Winning the lottery will make us happy for a time, but that happiness disappears when new and different problems appear. Happiness as an emotion and, as all emotions, it is transitory. For happiness to be sustained, we need to constantly search for newer and better ways to make ourselves happy. In this way, happiness is like a drug. It gives us a momentary high which fades away unless we keep feeding ourselves more and more.
If happiness is a temporary emotional state, are we doomed to suffer a life of ups and downs, highs and lows, depending upon our current circumstances? No. There is an alternative to happiness. The alternative is contentment.
Contentment is a state of mind that is satisfied with the way things are, and the way life is. Contentment is the absence of desire, from wanting more — from the feeling that something is missing. Contentment regards life as complete, as it is, right now.
While happiness is transitory, contentment is long-lasting. Happiness relies on external activities and events; contentment is internal. Happiness exists in degrees. We can be pleased, excited or exhilarated. Contentment is absolute, and not subject to emotional ups and downs. While happiness must constantly be fed, contentment is self-fulfilling. We have to work at being happy. To be content, we just need to let go of our desires and the emotional attachments to the things that we have.
How do we find contentment? Throughout history many wise people have taught the way of true contentment. Students and followers recorded some of these teachings for us. If we examine the instructions of Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Jesus and others, we find that these these wise sages taught common themes. These timeless teachings are not unique to any particular time in history; they can be applied to our life situations today.
Presence. Contentment begins by living in the present moment. Too often we are preoccupied with thoughts of the past or daydreams of the future. Living in the past produces regrets: regrets that good times have passed, regrets for actions we have taken or regrets that opportunities have been missed. Obsessing over the past is counter-productive because the past cannot be changed. We can only change our lives now. Similarly, focusing on the future can paralyze us or prevent us from engaging in beneficial actions because we focus on the twin distractions of hope and fear. Fear can hinder us from taking the necessary actions to reach our goals. Hope is a negative feeling inasmuch as this state of mind convinces us that anything positive that may occur is outside of our control. It is essential to dream about our ideal future, to set goals aimed at realizing those ideals, and to act to achieve them. But we must focus our efforts on the present moment. By occupying ourselves with thoughts of the past and the future, we deny ourselves the only time when we can take positive action to accomplish our goals: the present.
Responsibility. Each one of us is responsible for our own lives, our own thoughts and our own actions. We tend to blame others for our past and, by extension, whatever is wrong with our current life situation. Our notions of self-worth and self-esteem come from others. To better our life situation and make any progress toward the future we imagine for ourselves, it is necessary for each of us to take responsibility for our own lives – our own thoughts, our own values, our own actions. We need to let go of whatever happened to us in the past, stop living with anger or regrets over what no longer is, and accept personal responsibility for moving our own lives forward. We are responsible for our own outcomes.
Oneness. In our modern age of global communications, it is not difficult to see that we are all interconnected for practical purposes. The work of the farmer brings food to our table. The labor of the factory worker fills our closets. Social unrest or natural disasters that occur in one part of our world affect other parts of our planet. The injudicious use of a nuclear weapon can end all of our lives. In a world where our social, political, and economic actions become more globally intertwined every day, it is necessary — not only to realize our individual goals, but for our collective survival above a subsistence level — to realize that everything and everyone is connected; or, rather, that all things are inter-connected. We are all part of the whole. Understanding the practical connections, or dependencies, that affect our individual lives every day is a small step. The great leap that needs to occur in our thinking is progressing from the level of the individual to that of the whole, and realizing that an organism cannot survive if its individual parts work against each other.
Balance. Our lives can easily seem as though they are “out of control” when we take things to extremes. When we eat or drink too much, or fail to get enough sleep, our health is out of balance. When we spend more than we earn, resulting in too little savings and too much debt, our finances are out of balance. When we devote so much time to working that we neglect our loved ones, both our career and our relationships are out of balance. When we allocate so much of our time to others that we have no time for ourselves we create the most critical imbalance of all, for we neglect the need to be present and work on ourselves. Even when we are alone, we distract ourselves with mind-numbing entertainment or trivial tasks. Whether we are considering our health, our personal finances, or our relationships, we need to act with moderation. Balance is achievable through goal-directed behavior that does not erect artificial barriers between particular aspects of our lives. To accomplish our goals, or to live our lives with a sense of inner peace, we need to maintain an equilibrium between all of the compartments. We need to carefully allocate the time we devote to others with the time we devote to ourselves and our personal development. We need to give sufficient attention to each individual facet of our lives so that we nurture our total being. Most importantly, we need to remember that anything carried to one extreme will necessarily gravitate toward its opposite, and maintain moderation in whatever we do.
Equanimity. Equanimity is the acceptance of things as they are. Equanimity means accepting our current situation without undue regret or bitterness, and adjusting our goals to make it better. Equanimity is not docility, it is acceptance. Equanimity is not resignation; rather, it begins a plan of action. Equanimity is about remaining true to your inner values while being open-minded to outer circumstances, events, and opinions. Equanimity begins with the realization that life is not fair. No one said it was, nor has anything ever happened in history to suggest that it is, or that it ever will be. Bad things happen. No one gets everything they want. Nothing good lasts forever. When outcomes do not converge with our expectations, life can be frustrating and disappointing, but “it is what it is.”
Simplicity. Our unique status as rational thinkers has lead us to develop an arrogance of importance. We have convinced ourselves that we are superior to the rest of existence. As a result of our supposed superiority and importance, we assume that everything we do, and how we live, must be incredibly complex. And we readily accept the obligations that such complexity brings. As we accept the fallacy that the problems and issues that confront our superior lives require complex solutions, our life becomes full of intricate and never-ending detours. We permit endless distractions to occupy our time and our thoughts rather than tending to our inner being and needs. To live a fully-engaged life we need to simplify. We need to peel away the layers of complexity that we have added to our lives. We need to expose the fallacy that, as special creations of nature, we have unique needs to maintain an optimum existence, which can only be met with complex solutions. Simplicity is the ability to resist needlessly complicating our lives with too many unimportant or unnecessary things. Simplicity is performing a necessary action in a manner that takes the least amount of time and produces the least anxiety; the process that permits us the lightest mental burden. We can restrict our efforts to only those endeavors that propel us forward on the path that we have chosen, filling our lives with meaning rather than activity.
Can we be content and yet continue to strive to better ourselves and work toward goals? Yes. Happiness and contentment are not mutually exclusive. But while happiness fades, contentment remains, as long as we’re not attached to the things we want or have. By focusing too much on attaining happiness, we devalue what we already have, and we become discontent with the disappointment that accompanies constantly looking for more and more happiness.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being happy. But happiness requires an ongoing effort — a continual quest — to be sustained. No such effort or quest is necessary to be content. We should continue to pursue our goals and strive to better our situations, but whether we achieve everything we set out to do does not matter. When the inevitable happens and life disappoints us, we need to be content with the way things are.