In 2020, the year of climate, pandemic and global awareness of humanity, we wake up each morning and ask, ‘What idiocies will our leaders come out with today? What human rights violations, both locally and internationally, will we see splashed over the news? What new or very, very old injustice will we hear about, and how will we respond?’
Will the climate emergency be ignored or embraced by governments struggling to rebuild economies? Will COVID-19 ever go away, or will it simply move aside for another worldwide health crisis to take over? Will laws and social mores change in response to citizens’ protests, or will we all subside back into our little bubbles of comfort or suffering?
The mental burden is seriously heavy right now.
Is it possible to find contentment in such circumstances? And is it desirable to want to do so?
What is contentment?
Contentment is subjective. What signifies contentment to one seems absurd to another. American poet Donald Hall said, ‘Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.’ Sometimes, when I’m writing or teaching, I know just what he means. My sister, however, would say that anything involving the word ‘work’ by definition could not involve the word ‘contentment.’ And I know she’s not alone.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines contentment as ‘The action of satisfying; the process of being satisfied; satisfaction.’ This definition is also defined as ‘archaic’. This older use partially meant, in other words, to make others contented. I approve. Contentment shared, surely, is contentment doubled down — bigger, better.
The modern usage is defined as ‘The fact, condition, or quality of being contented; contentedness.’
Okay, so what’s contentedness? We’re told that it is to be ‘Satisfied, desiring nothing more or nothing different; limiting one’s desires, willing to put up with something’.
There’s no time restriction on it; you could be content forever or for an instant.
Desiring nothing more or nothing different. How many of us can say that?
Limiting one’s desires/willing to put up with something. Hm. That trait is in thin supply these days. We are no longer prepared to put up.
Does that mean contentment is lost? And can we find it again? Should we? Let’s dig further.
The word appeared in Late Middle English, and it began by denoting the payment of a claim. Anyone who’s had an insurance payout, especially in uncertain circumstances, will relate to the word’s journey from that specific meaning of contentment, of having a claim paid, to our current general definition, of feeling happy and satisfied. Because it IS a wonderful feeling when insurance does its job, is it not?
Finding contentment: A process or a state of being?
The Dalai Lama talked about ‘practicing contentment,’ as if contentment can be learned and is up to you — you decide to be content or not with what you have. Therefore, regardless of your circumstances, and regardless of your personality, you can teach yourself to be content. Today, you are not content with your situation. But perhaps, with practice, you might be able to change your mind.
I question whether it’s realistic to expect certain people to be able to develop a sense of contentment. Picture two people working at a call center. One person is called Happy Chappy and the other is called Grim Jim.
Grim Jim wakes up with a groan. For him, life is a series of unfair battles. Spilled coffee on his shirt? Typical. Someone gets promoted? Sucking up to the boss! He’s unappreciated and going nowhere. ‘Why bother? What’s the point?’ is his mantra. ‘Guess I’m just destined to hate my life,’ he says.
Now imagine Happy Chappy. He never lets life get him down. His job is not much fun, but he studies every night and saves all he can, in hopes of better things. He finds ways to enjoy life and appreciate what he does have instead of obsessing about what he does not. ‘You only have one life,’ he says. ‘Make it a good one!’
I’m sure you know people like Grim Jim and Happy Chappy. You might even recognize yourself in them, or in parts of them. The discipline of Positive Psychology studied and written about by scientists like Martin Seligman, identifies these two mindsets, and details the difficulties inherent in the negative one when it comes to changing their outlook on life. For positive people, all things are possible, so they are more likely to give things a go. For negative people, all things are, if not impossible, then probably too hard, or not worth it anyway.
Can negative people really learn to be content? I’m sure they can — but their mindset might never let them start trying.
Changing your life: Actively seeking contentment
If practicing contentment with what you have isn’t the answer, perhaps it is better to define what contentment looks like to you, and then actively try to get there. In this scenario, contentment is determined by the scope of your imagination and your ambition. Achieve this, acquire this, and contentment is yours.
For a refugee in Syria, a safe home and the ability to earn money to buy food, clean water, and education for their kids, might be all they need to be content. One could argue that the situation is a little different for many people of color and First Nations in the world today.
For a private-school-educated lawyer in New York, contentment might look like a partnership at the firm, a summer home out of the city, a fast car and an annual vacation to an exclusive resort. Once these things are procured, your state of mind automatically becomes contentment.
Of course, now we know it is not that simple; that our journey towards contentment can be interrupted by life’s little pandemics when you least expect them.
Does the journey ever end?
Viruses notwithstanding, is contentment really as simple as setting a goal and achieving it? After all, if you start on the first rung of the ladder and imagine contentment to be reaching the second rung, and you make it there, that’s great. Look around a bit. Enjoy your new position. Settle down to live in contentment…
But hang on: the view is better here, on the second rung. You see more. Your imagination expands. You came up in the world; who’s to say you can’t ascend further? Suddenly, you can conceive of a third rung and maybe more beyond that. Look at how good your life became when you climbed up just a little bit. Might you be more content again, a bit further up?
And with this thought, contentment is swept away.
What is the Value of Contentment?
Canadian author Merle Shain said, ‘One often learns more from ten days of agony than ten years of contentment.’ This implies that contentment is a useless state; an inertial state, where nothing happens, nothing is learned and you do not grow as a person. Is that so bad? After ten days of agony, I think I would be quite happy to rest, content, for a while.
Why does contentment have such a bad rap? Nobel laureate, Eugene O’Neill said, ‘One should either be sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers.’ I have family members who would agree with this philosophy and would despise anyone who is ‘content’ with ‘contentment’. Well, I’m afraid I must bear their disgust as well: I am more inclined to stand with Alfred Nobel, who once said, ‘Contentment is the only real wealth.’
Don’t count contentment out
I believe contentment is greatly undervalued. The English philosopher Bernard Williams said, ‘We may pass violets looking for roses. We may pass contentment looking for victory.’ Keep pushing past contentment in search of something apparently better, and you may find yourself with the exact opposite of contentment in the end.
I love the feeling of completeness and quiet joy that comes with a contented life. Ambition has its place, but I refuse to let it control me. I work hard and I deserve to feel good about my successes, without fretting about what comes next. My life gets disrupted, like all of ours do. Things go wrong for me sometimes. But I have a positive mindset which helps me to see that these little hiccups are not forever, and they do not cancel out all the good that came before, nor will they prevent the good still to come. I can be content generally if sometimes discontented specifically.
I’m not sure it’s possible to be more content. The moment you quantify it, contentment is lost, because if you conceive of something better and desire it, it means what you have now is not contentment. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe you can be content with your current circumstances while still striving for a better future — perhaps the struggle is a part of what defines contentment for you. I know someone who could not just stop. On retirement, they immediately joined clubs, began volunteering, took up orienteering, went fishing, joined the volunteer fire service. When circumstances forced them to stop doing most activities, they quickly declined — they were unable to strive, and so they lost their joy in life.
Perhaps contentment can be quantified. I’m content now, but there are things I’d change in a perfect world. If some of those things resolved favorably, things would be better — so I should logically be more content then, right? Or would I then, like that hapless ladder climber from earlier, simply identify more things to change? That might tell me something about the kind of person I am and what contentment means to me.
What does contentment mean to you? Until you can define it for yourself, it may be elusive. As Joni Mitchell said, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’. So, if we can embrace what contentment means to us now, we’re more likely to recognize it when it appears.
And with that, I’m content to finish.
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