Am I happy? Am I fulfilled? Am I content? Is there a difference? Is there a conflict between happiness and contentment or is it an issue of perspective and balance? I have pondered much about this for some time. The topic of contentment brings forth a plethora of proverbs, platitudes, quotes and memes. We all tend to see the wisdom in such sayings, but the actual practice of contentment in our lives is a little more complicated and difficult.
So after much contemplation I will offer my own thoughts and platitudes:
Contentment is about gratitude – appreciating what you have rather than focusing on or seeking for what you don’t have, what others have, or what may be out of reach at this time.
The world would have us compare ourselves with others, to feel that it is not fair that some have so much more than we have, to look at ourselves as lacking in one way or another. There will always be those who are more wealthy, beautiful, successful or powerful than we are, but there will also be those who have less than we in all areas. Contentment does not compare and see a lack, but appreciates what we do have.
Contentment is an internal state, not necessarily related to the circumstances of our lives.
Contentment doesn’t really have anything to do with our external circumstances. I really admire people who can find contentment in the midst of life’s most difficult challenges – those who would have every reason to feel that life had shortchanged them. I think they do not see life, or anyone else as owing them anything – they don’t feel entitled to have things the way they want. They just try to be the best person they can be. They accept the world and people in their lives the way they are and appreciate them for what they contribute.
Contented people find satisfaction in simple things, rather than grandiose or exciting things.
It is kind of hard scrolling through Facebook in the summer and seeing photos of exciting places and spectacular events in friends lives. There is some temptation to think that life must be a continual adventure or somehow we are missing out.
I recently watched the Little Mermaid with my grandkids. Ariel had an obvious desire to explore and learn and experience different things. She sings “I want more”. Is that a sign of discontent, or an indication of ambition? When is enough enough? Sometimes the problems that come with seeking more can lead one to realize that they really had what was important in the first place. The most important things in life are usually the simple things, and especially those we share with special people in our lives.
Contentment is not complacency. Set goals and pursue them, but be accepting of your best efforts even if the result is less than what you desired.
I have never been the type of person who just wants to coast through life with little ambition. Especially in my younger years, I felt I needed to accomplish things. I may have had a tendency to judge others who didn’t set and pursue goals as lacking initiative or motivation. Contentment is not the same thing as complacency. It is not about not caring, or settling for what should be unacceptable, or drifting aimlessly through life. Contentment can exist with ambition. We can seek to learn, grow and improve. We can be content with our best efforts even if our best is not as good as another’s or if the results are not what we hoped for.
Contentment accepts that life is a journey with times and seasons for all things. Set off for your destination but don’t get so focused on it that you miss the little things and the new opportunities provided by those unexpected detours along the way.
I recently had a birthday. I am at a point where the majority of my life is definitely behind me. Where I once might have had dreams of accomplishing big things, I realize now that “some ships have sailed” and opportunities are no longer there. There are things I hoped to accomplish that never happened in spite of my efforts. I have come to understand that there are seasons of life and that is okay. I hope to age gracefully – to be able to accept the physical limitations of aging, to look back without regrets, and to be content with simple joys that are available to me now. Can I be content with the opportunities and experiences that I have had and where those have taken me and taught me?
I have experienced events which turned my world upside down. It could be easy to feel sorry for myself, to complain that “this is not what I signed up for”. Life often does not go as planned. Things happen that are outside our control and that we cannot fix. Do we live with discontent and frustration? Do we become bitter and angry? Or can we learn to be content with our present reality?
Be content to be a small, but useful instrument. Do good where you can while remaining humble enough to not need credit or a prominent role. Find the balance point between realistically accepting limitations but still stretching to fill your capacity.
In the Book of Mormon we read the Prophet Alma’s heartfelt pleading “O that I were an angel” expressing his desire to be more effective in bringing his people to repentance. I think that what he said after this might be more significant: “I am a man, and do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.” (Alma 29:1-3)
We can hope for greatness or a large sphere of influence, but contentment is being satisfied with what opportunities we have had to contribute something, small as it may be, for we really have no idea how vast the reach of small acts of service or kindness might be.
Contentment finds wisdom in balance
I am reminded of the Serenity Prayer:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”
As I have contemplated contentment, I have come to feel that the key lies in that wisdom. Life should be about making positive changes – to grow, learn and improve. Those kind of changes are internal and largely within our control. Our contentment should be with our efforts, not necessarily the results. It is the external circumstances of life which often cause us stress and frustration, but which also are largely outside of our control. Serenity, peace and contentment can come as we accept those things that we cannot, or in some cases should not even try to change. Sometimes in an attempt to change things we think we can change, we focus on our environment and outward circumstances thinking that we would be happy “if only”, but find ourselves never quite satisfied. What is really needed is a change of attitude or perspective.
In my struggle for contentment, I am beginning to understand that it is really an internal state. It has more to do with being comfortable with myself and having the peace of knowing I am right with God. Without that inner state, all of the accumulated things, excitement or accomplishments will not really matter and neither will all of the unfulfilled dreams or frustrations of life.