I love self-help books, regardless of what some people think about them. A few weeks ago, I had the immense chance to randomly come across a little free book that changed my life. It may sound like a pretty big statement but this book came in my life like a bomb. You know when you live your life thinking you are on the right path and suddenly BAM! Life puts you back in the right spot. That was the effect of that book on me. It is like I was missing a big piece, say, the corner piece of a puzzle — in my research of happiness.
And then, like some other self-help books I have read in my life, I felt like I had the great privilege to receive a secret — like being part of a secret society where only a select few share some sort of knowledge. So I had to share it with the world!
The book is free and quite short (110 pages in PDF format). It is possible to read the whole thing in two hours. Then, you get back to it again and again until you master it. The name of the book is “The little book of Contentment: A guide to becoming happy with life & who you are, while getting things done,” written by Leo Babauta, creator of the website Zen Habits. You can find it for free by clicking on this link.
Since nobody has time to read every book that is out there, I felt that sharing my favorite parts of the book was required. I wanted everyone to be in this super happiness secret. I added some context and personal comments so you can still get some takeaways without reading the whole thing. This is definitely not replacing the book, but for busy people, these takeaways will be a good start to practicing contentment. Before we start, how do you define contentment? Per the author, it is being happy with who you are. So, how do we achieve that?
1. “All of our problems stem from discontent.”
The sources related to discontent can be summarized in 4 items: 1. An ideal/fantasy we are holding onto. 2. Unhappiness with who we are. 3. Lack of trust/confidence in ourselves. 4. Seeking happiness externally.
2. “The first problem is if you don’t trust yourself. The second problem is that you judge yourself badly”
The same way we distance ourselves from friends we cannot trust, when we stop trusting ourselves, we are giving up. It is so important to trust ourselves and we must always work towards it. Eventually, we’ll trust ourselves to become a better person.
As for judging ourselves, we are quite good at that: we want to look good, reach our personal and professional objectives, travel around the world, learn a new language, be a perfect wife or a perfect dad. When we establish ideals that are more or less achievable, we will always compare ourselves unfavorably to these ideals and therefore, we must stop comparing ourselves.
3. “Many people think that if you’re content, you’re just going to lay around doing nothing all day.”
I was probably the first person to have a bit of disgust when I was hearing about contentment. Of course I want to be the best and always improve myself. I understand now that this is a misconception of the definition of contentment. If we want to modify some aspect of our life, starting with the idea that we are not good enough is probably not the best way to improve ourselves. Being content is a much better place to start with when it comes to self-improvement.
For example, by accepting your body and your appearance, deciding to start working out to improve your fitness and health becomes an enjoyable luxury — a nice to have. If you start with the idea that you are not good enough and that you must absolutely change, every time you face a little challenge or a failure, you will give up easily. Because you are so hard on yourself, you may decide that you do not have enough discipline to change. Which method do you think will bring more results?
4. “One of the biggest sources of discontent is comparing yourself to other people, or your life to what you see others doing”
The author talks about fantasies. What we think other people do and how they live are only fantasies. What we see from other people’s lives is often only a small part — only the good moments. Our lives are a series of fantasies and we usually don’t even realize that we are having all these fantasies. Result: our life is good but never as good as our fantasies. We are therefore often discontent. Our frustrations, deceptions, irritations, or hate against others or ourselves is often a good sign that one of our fantasies did not materialize. Therefore, it is crucial to identify what is and is not a fantasy.
5. “Contentment is about letting go of these fantasies, and realizing that life is amazing without them. People around us are amazing without the fantasies. We are amazing, without the fantasies.”
I’m sure if you think about it for few minutes you will find a large number of fantasies that are part of your everyday life. The entire world is conspiring to create fantasies, either through social media, marketing, television, etc. — without even realizing it, you are bombarded with those fantasies. For me, after spending a couple hours on Instagram and Pinterest, I have desires to be skinnier, more toned, have nicer clothes, a nice house, etc. Then, in my relationships with others, I wish that my husband was able to do two things at the same time, that people who drive cars are actually able to drive in a straight line without having an accident, that customer service people actually provide service to the customer rather than painful exchanges that my boss understands my point of view every time we talk, etc. — The list can be long. Just understanding and recognizing our fantasies is a very good start towards a better life. I felt zen and patient when I started to recognize that some of my frustrations were just fantasies. Let’s be honest though, this is a lot of work. However, it is definitely worth a try!
6. “Most of us experience this — we try to find happiness in people and things around us, instead of finding it within”
If we depend on people or things to be happy, our happiness is inconsistent and temporary. Either through our boyfriend or girlfriend, food, drugs, work or alcohol — all these sources of happiness are external. The solution is to realize what makes us truly happy. The author gives a good example: Drinking a good coffee. When we drink a good coffee and we concentrate on this coffee, the happiness is created by the self-realization that we are drinking a good coffee, not the coffee itself. If we drink that same coffee but also talk to our boss on the phone and answer an email all at the same time, the level of happiness will be zero to none. Following that logic, being happy should be simple. Whether we look at snow flakes falling, enjoy a couple hours under the sun, or spend some time with our family, the mere realization that we are having a good time should suffice to provide happiness. In a similar way, acknowledging our qualities and what we are able to do, also provides “real” happiness. Appreciating who we are and being happy to exist will always be there regardless of what happens externally. We become very independent in our pursuit of happiness when we don’t rely on external sources.
7. “We are all learning. You can tell it to yourself whenever someone does something you don’t like.”
A big source of discontent comes from frustration with others. Our reactions to these situations contribute to the deterioration of our relationships with others. A good way to get our of these situations is to first realize that the situation is happening. Then, tell yourself “We are all learning” to remain calm. For example, you think your boss is inhuman and never tells you that you are doing a good job. You can tell yourself: “We are all learning. My boss probably never learned how to provide compliments. Maybe he never received any compliments? I cannot be mad at my boss, he just doesn’t know how. I am lucky, I know how to give praise to people that do a good job because I have learned it.” This may sound like a silly internal discussion with yourself but it will definitely be good enough to calm down and remain patient. Once we master this concept, we can even add, “The other person is not the problem.” This is not easy when you typically blame others for things that happen to you. However, it is true that everyone is doing the best they can for himself or herself. Everyone is just going to try to work in the morning. Everyone is trying to check out quickly at the grocery store. Or is this a fantasy? These people don’t have personal vendettas against you. So clearly, if someone doesn’t do what you think they should, you are the problem or at least, your way of reacting to the problem is the issue.
8. “The actions of other people have very little to do with you”
Let’s say your boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with you. You may think you are the problem and take it personally. If your friend suddenly acts differently around you and seems preoccupied, you may think it is because of you. If your boss is in a bad mood, you may think you did something wrong. However, there are many possible reasons why someone does something and we should not think we are the cause. There are more chances that it is completely related to the other person and therefore, there is no reason to feel bad about it and take it personally.
Being humble is important. Every little thing that happens is not happening because of you. You are a small piece of a huge world and it is important to realize this.
9. “When you’re whole, you don’t need someone else’s validation to be happy — because you accept yourself. You don’t need someone else to love you in order to feel loved — because you love yourself”
We often think that we need others to feel love. In a relationship, we can become insecure, jealous and have the need to be constantly reassured by the other about their intentions and feelings. We all need love and we all need others, but by being whole, we contribute much more to the relationship and we don’t need the other to validate us. How do we get to be whole? By loving and accepting ourselves, and most of all, being content. When two whole people meet, these people can be separated and sufficiently secure to not worry about the other and appreciate the time spent alone.
In summary, by accepting who we are and not judging ourselves as much, we become a whole person who is self-confident, which attracts other people to us. The external sources that at one time made us frustrated, do not affect us as much. To help us reach this state of mind, we must diminish the effect of external pressures, identify our fantasies, and be detached from them by relying instead on internal factors to create our happiness.
My personal challenge with this book was how to balance contentment with self-improvement needs. The two seem to be conflicting. Although I understand that contentment is a good starting point for self-improvement, If you are content, why would you like to improve yourself? However, change and improvement do not have to come from an unhappy place. In fact, they should not. Growing and improving yourself happens most effectively coming from a place of contentment.
For example, person A is looking in the mirror thinking she is fat and should lose some weight. Person A just spent a couple hours watching the Victoria Secret fashion show. Person A goes to the gym, hating herself the whole way, being frustrated, buys an annual membership. A few days later, Person A does not see real results and declare herself a failure and never returns to the gym.
Person B is looking in the mirror and she is content what she sees. Person B also just spent a couple hours watching the fashion show. Person B realizes that the fashion show is just a fantasy, a well-oiled machine meant to create dreams and make us spend money to recreate the dream. Person B still goes to the gym, but because she goes to the gym starting from a place of contentment, Person B will not give up easily, will not dread going every day, and will acknowledge that changes will take time and effort and will not miraculously happen over night. Person B may skip some days at the gym but will not beat herself up for doing so.
What’s important here is that Person A and B both observed the same external sources. Yet, they responded in entirely different ways because one was discontent and one was content.
Originally published at thewinterofsophie.com.