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Getting to Contentment

There are countless self-help books on how to attain happiness. For many people suffering from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, the idea of getting to a state of happiness can seem too far-fetched.  So I have a proposition: take a step away from happiness, and turn towards working on getting to contentment.  The following are some ways to get to contentment.


  1. Avoid making comparisons.


We live in a world where society tells us that for us to feel worthy we must be better than – .  Better than your classmates, better than your coworkers, better than the other parents at your child’s school.  Even though these pressures come from society, we make them our own goals and then base our worth on someone else’s achievements rather than our own.  Making such comparisons can be damaging since no two people have the same circumstances and therefore cannot be accurately compared.  This concept applies to emotions too.  I have often heard people say things like, “I shouldn’t be sad when there are starving children in Africa.” I call this “quantifying pain.” Emotional pain is subjective, and comparing your pain to something or someone else’s not only serves to invalidate your own experiences, but further adds emotional pain by creating feelings of shame or embarrassment.  If you instead focus on validating the emotions you are feeling, and accepting them for what they are, you will notice a sense of calm over allowing yourself to just be.


  1. Allow room for disappointment.


“Don’t worry, be happy,” “hakuna matata,” “turn that frown upside down,” are common things we hear everyday.  We hear these messages that tell us we must strive to always be happy, never have worries, and avoid negativity. It makes a lot of sense that we might strive for this because positive emotions feel pleasant whereas feeling negative emotions often do not. This leads to us chasing these pleasant feelings and trying to avoid any and all negative ones. However, pain is a basic part of the human condition and is inevitable; therefore, we will encounter struggles throughout our lives.  For instance, we may feel sadness after a break-up, grief from losing a loved one, anxiety about writing an important exam, or anger from being yelled at.  Given that negative experiences like these are common, striving to always have positive experiences will mean setting yourself up for further disappointment. Perhaps then, a more realistic approach to life will be to allow room disappointment.


  1. Focus on the here and now.


It is common for people to be concerned about the future.  Making sure we have a sound future is smart.  However, at times, doing so can take away from enjoying the present.  People often work with the intention that it will pay off in the end.  Though that may be true, the journey is just as important at the destination.  Suffering through the year so can you can relax on the beach during your one week vacation is not enough.  In order to live a life of contentment, we must allow opportunities to feel joy in the present, and more frequently.


Say, for instance, you’re working on a project that may land you a promotion.  You bust your butt working hard for that final result.  Paying attention to the here now means also celebrating those smaller victories that you have along the way, like completing a chapter, meeting a deadline, or even being able to get through a whole day of hard work.  These are some opportunities for you to feel proud of your efforts in the moment rather than waiting till the end.  Other ways to focus on the here and now are expressing gratitude, finding time for self-care, journaling, and partaking in feel-good activities like playing sports, painting, or listening to music.  To feel contentment, pay attention to what you can be proud of in the present rather then focusing on what may or may not make you happier in the future.


  1. Work on intrinsic vs. extrinsic goals.


As human beings in the 21st century, we’re constantly searching for the next best thing.  The latest model of the iPhone, a bigger house or car, the fluffiest dog, etc.  We base our sense of happiness or satisfaction in life on achieving certain extrinsic goals or milestones. E.g. “I will be happy once I get a raise.” When we do so, we make it harder to reach that state of contentment, remove power from ourselves in reaching that goal and also engage in a pursuit of happiness from things that are often short-lived. Getting a raise may be impacted by our efficiency, productivity, or the value we offer our company. But it is also dependent on things outside of our control such as the climate of the economy, the company’s ability to provide financial advancements, etc. Moreover, once we have achieved that raise, we may very well feel happiness for some time, maybe even an extended period of time, but then our attention naturally turns towards the “next thing” that will bring us happiness.


Alternatively, we ought to be working towards on-going goals that bring us meaning and purpose in life and long-term happiness. These involve a focus on intrinsic goals such as working on self-acceptance, emotional growth, and contribution to society, etc. It is these intrinsic goals that help us feel as though we are living purposeful and meaning lives.


  1. Bring meaning and purpose to your life.


It seems it is easy to get sucked into the mundaneness of life. We fall into patterns like you wake up, go to work, come home, cook dinner, go to bed, and repeat. Although this may sound satisfactory, you can take it a step further by introducing activities throughout your day or week that bring a sense of purpose or meaning to your life. Partaking in activities that allow us to practice our values can help to pull out of this mundaneness.


It can be helpful for each of us to reflect on our values so that we can ensure that we are prioritizing them.  For instance, if advocacy is one of your values, you may consider joining a social advocacy group, or taking a stand for a cause that is important to you.  If providing support is a value, you may seek opportunities to volunteer in a support role at a soup kitchen. If spirituality makes your life meaningful, allow time daily to practice it in whatever capacity you choose e.g. meditation, prayer, gardening, etc.  For some of us, unfortunately, our jobs do not give us that desired purpose.  That’s ok.  We do whatever we can to put food on the table.  But it is all the more important for such individuals to ensure that their activities outside of work give them that desired meaning and purpose.  If creating art gives you meaning but doesn’t pay the bills, find time for it after work, or perhaps volunteer to teach an art class.  Sometimes life doesn’t give you exactly what you want.  If this is true for you, it may be beneficial for you to find creative ways to get what you want so as to feel more joy in your life.


These proposed methods to getting to contentment are designed to help you work within your means.  They are inexpensive and mostly rely on simply changing your thought process. The idea behind contentment is to reveal that it is possible to feel joy in the little things that we do, and recognize that sometimes less can be more.


Shezlina Haji, MA, has extensive experience in the area of  personal growth, plus many more. For more information on Shezlina and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.