A couple of weeks ago I cohosted a series of four podcasts with Kathe Kline of Rock Your Retirement. Kathe let me pick the topic of each of our discussions. After finding and selecting four articles I thought sounded intriguing, Kathe and I then spent 30 minutes discussing each of them from our individual perspectives. And although the podcasts are currently being edited and won’t be available until August, one of the topics stuck deeply in my mind. That topic is contentment. And while the word and concept sounds vaguely pleasant and benevolent, I must admit that I’m beginning to realize that I’ve overlooked its greater value and importance.
What do I mean by contentment? First let’s look at what it it’s not. From my viewpoint, contentment isn’t:
- Giving in and putting up with whatever is happening.
- Settling for less than what you’ve always wanted.
- Complacency or conformity.
- Lazy, bored or unmotivated behavior.
It was only after reading, talking and thinking about the topic, did I begin to see that true contentment is really a deep-seated sense and appreciation Self. Not in an egoic way, but rather as an abiding acceptance of one’s inherent value and worth. That includes a personal sense of self-fulfillment, meaning, and purpose, along with gratitude for one’s very existence. It has nothing to do with what you look like, how much money you have, your age, whether you are married or single, have kids or not, or perhaps even the condition of your health and body. It can, and often does, exist despite your life circumstances, the political situation in the world, or other events or happenings going on around you. Even when challenged, even when it’s not easy, we can decide to experience the feeling of contentment no matter what!
And the more you think about it, contentment just might precede happiness. After all, if we don’t believe we are good enough or if we constantly crave what we don’t have (or might never have) we will continually struggle. If we can’t stop and find the beauty, or at least goodness, right here in the now, it is pretty much a given that happiness will elude us. If I am not happy being who I am, living where I live, doing what I do most days—then my happiness level goes out the window.
Of course, I can hear the objections—and some I’ve probably used myself. The big arguments against contentment are:
- If we are “content” with what is happening, we will just sit back and never reach our true potential.
- We will never accomplish anything good or important in our lives if we don’t struggle.
- It’s too hard, too painful, and I’ve gone through so much it is impossible to be content.
- The world (our children, our family) will fall apart if we don’t tirelessly fight and struggle to change it/them.
- It’s not fair that other people have more or are luckier than me—or that others get away with horrible things.
- It is wrong for any of us to feel happy and content when there are so many bad things in the world and there are people who need our help.
But again, those objections don’t fit with my newly revised definition of contentment. Those six items are claims that focus on loss and the idea that we, and life itself, is fundamentally flawed and must be fixed. They highlight what is wrong rather than seeking what is good. They ignore the present moment and the value of individual meaning and purpose. They reduce our lives to our productivity and ongoing efforts. They make us human doings—rather than human beings. And perhaps more dangerous, they convince us that we’ll never find peace and happiness unless everything is perfect and lives up to our expectations.
The particular article I selected about contentment for my co-podcast was written by an 88-year-old man named Robert Goldfarb. Goldfarb admits that he recently began to realize that in spite of the fact that he has spent a large portion of his retired life trying to keep his body physically fit and as vibrant as possible, he might have missed something important. That element is embodying contentment and the awareness of mind that comes with it. He supposes, that in spite of the fact that he is elderly and the years will continue to add up, he has the option to choose a state of mind at peace, and to welcome each new situation with gratitude. And perhaps by embracing contentment, Goldfarb believes he will live out the rest of his life in a far happier way, no matter what circumstances lie before him.
I especially appreciated that Goldfarb wasn’t suggesting that growing his sense of contentment would erase any of the challenges he faces (or any of us will) as we age. Instead, he realized that instead of focusing primarily on the muscles in his body, he should perhaps start focusing on the condition of his mental attitude. Going forward he wants to spend the rest of his days focused on those things in life that still worked (in his mind and his body) rather than what he is losing. He wants to celebrate opportunities to spend time with those he loves, to appreciate the beauty he sees around him, and to be a positive inspiration to everyone else. Rather than worry about things he can’t control, or fight against things that bother him on a personal level, he wants to remember that he can choose to experience peace, purpose and contentment, no matter what. He writes, “Aging had to be more than what I saw in the mirror.”
As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, Thom and I spent the month of June in the mountains above our desert community. At the first of the month I had a list of things I hoped to accomplish. Did I get them all done? Nope. But what I managed to do instead was cultivate a sense of deep-seated, abiding sense of self-acceptance and peace of mind. I sat and listened to the wind whooshing through the trees overhead, the creek babbling nearby, and birds and squirrels playing around me. I hiked and marveled at the vivid greenery and the abundance of wildlife. I allowed myself to feel that just being alive, here and now, was enough. In other words, I luxuriated in contentment. And in my opinion, that was far better than finishing my to-do list.
Can I stay there? Like Goldfarb, I know that circumstances change—I change. My husband Thom and I left the mountain last week and now have new adventures planned. But also like Goldfarb, I believe we can all take steps (some big, some little) towards making those changes in our lives that allow us to experience greater contentment every single day. So I’m guessing that the SMART perspective is to remember the words of Lao Tzu who said,
“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the world belongs to you.”