What is contentment?

My daughter gave me a little book for my birthday called “Contentment Is…” The book is a compilation of quotes about contentment and happiness that was first published in 1968. I keep flipping through this little gem, finding nuggets of inspiration on almost every page.

If I’m content with a little, enough is as good as a feast.” I should have read this advice, courtesy of Isaac Bickerstaff, before the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s the only time of the year that my own cooking makes me feel sick. Why do we feel the need to stuff ourselves silly on this one day when having just enough would still be a feast? Isn’t the first taste of something always the best?

Thanksgiving_23Contentment is a pearl of great price, and whoever procures it at the expense of ten thousand desires makes a wise and happy purchase.” This wisdom comes from John Balguy, a philosopher who never heard of Black Friday, but seems to know something about the relative value of happiness compared to possessions. It seems kind of crazy to spend one day counting our blessings, and then the next one acting as if none of our desires have been met.

When we cannot find contentment in ourselves, it is useless to seek it elsewhere.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld was a French nobleman who probably had a lot of experience with people seeking happiness in fancy clothes, partying and illicit affairs. He clearly was a keen observer of those around him, and used his insight to write books of maxims like this one.

What makes many persons discontented with their own condition, is the absurd idea which they form of the happiness of others.” Ah, envy – it’s a sower of discontent if there ever was one. We look at those around us and make judgments about their houses, their cars, their jobs, their children and their money – and decide that they must be happier than we are. In truth, we have no idea if the house is mortgaged to the max, the spouse is about to file for divorce, or the children are brats. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

And finally, there is this observation: “Contentment is a matter of hoping for the best, then making the best of what you get.” Our ability to see the silver linings, to be optimistic, and to be grateful for what we have, determines the level of contentment we can achieve. It doesn’t mean we stop dreaming, but perhaps it means we stop grasping.

I realized after reading through my little book that it doesn’t contain one single definition of contentment. Some of the quotes tell me what it’s not; some tell me how it feels; some tell me where to look for it; and others tell me where I won’t find it. We have to create our own definition within ourselves.

The word ‘santosha’ means contentment, or satisfaction, in Sanskrit. The reason I use the word ‘discover’ in my blog’s name is because I do believe it is something that we each can find, or uncover, on our own life path. When we were babies, contentment was simple: to be fed, to be held, to be warm and dry. What is our baseline for happiness and satisfaction as we get older? Can we establish it and then always find our way back as life bounces us around?

An antidote to TMI

Do you know anyone who wants a more complicated life? Probably not. In spite of all our time-saving gadgets, and the ease of getting information, most people I talk to crave more simplicity in their lives.

We have at least two major magazines, over a thousand books, and almost 60 million search-engine hits that promise to help us simplify. We have smart-phone apps that promise to make it easy to find your friends, share your photos, keep track of calories and exercise better. Our new cars make it easier and safer to back up, change lanes and keep track of service. So why do we still feel so overwhelmed?

Some people think it has to do with information overload, multi-tasking and a sense of false urgency created by 24/7 access to news, email and texts. A recent Northwestern University study, however, showed that people felt “empowered and enthusiastic” about having so many sources of information at their fingertips. So what gives?

Maybe there are times when we want and need a lot of information, and having it makes us feel better. But there are also occasions when we really don’t want to know every detail, and we just want an easy way to make a decision. Each person is different in the amount and complexity of information they want, and when they want it.

A good example is food nutrition labeling. For some it is incredibly empowering to know the number of calories, and the specific percentages of each nutrient, in an item of food. For many, though, nutrition labels are confusing and don’t help them make better choices. Research on some restaurant labeling laws, in places such as New York City, has shown that most people do not change their ordering behavior even when calories are posted.

A lot of talk in prevention circles has been around “making the healthy choice the easy choice”. Bon Appetit Management, a food service company serving many colleges, may have just come one step closer to that goal. It is piloting its own “well-being” score that aims to cut through all the confusion around food labeling, and just make it simpler to tell the difference between one option and another on a menu.  It’s a simple arrow, with more or less green, depending on how healthy the item is.

Maybe sometimes all we want is a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. We can only hold limited information in our working memories at any given time. After that, our ability to integrate ideas and to reason well declines. Trying to juggle too much at one time taxes our brains and makes performance suffer. Maybe for some college students, this new food score will be an opportunity to give their brains a rest, at least at mealtime.

There will always be many important occasions when we need to know everything, when we need to sift through reams of information before making a decision. Sometimes, though, we can choose to give up the micro-management of the choice, and rely on a trusted source or our own instincts. Knowing the difference might take trial and error, but at least we’ll be taking baby steps toward that simpler life.

Waste in abundance

How much food will you throw away today? Will you even notice it?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a new report, estimates that we throw away 40% of our food supply in America every year. Food is wasted at every step in the supply chain, starting at the farm and ending in our kitchens and trash cans. Food now represents the biggest part of the solid waste in our landfills.

Last night, I was congratulating myself on the nice meal I made from ingredients I happened to have on hand – some leftover tomato, farro and onions from my pantry, basil from my garden, and a chunk of Parmigiano that I bought a couple of weeks ago. No waste!

But today I took stock of the food in my refrigerator that I will have to throw away. There is the cantaloupe I bought because my son has recently discovered he likes it – but then he didn’t eat it. There’s the fennel I bought because I needed some of the fronds for a recipe – but I didn’t have a use for the rest of it. There’s the apple someone bought and no one ate – because the summer fruits like peaches and berries are so much better!

As it turns out, fresh produce is the worst food group for waste.

When we personally throw away food, we may only think about the money that we wasted on it. But in reality, the waste is much broader. The NRDC is concerned with the other resources wasted, such as the water and energy to grow and transport it and the pollution caused by its production. They calculate that just a 15% reduction in waste could feed 25 million people a year.

While the issue of food waste is a big one that will require big solutions by government, the agriculture industry, food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants, there are steps that we as individuals can take to reduce our waste.

  • Don’t buy more food than you realistically will eat. People have a tendency to load up their shopping carts because of the bargains offered at warehouse stores, the relatively low cost of food in the U.S., and the convenience of shopping less frequently. But we may have to re-think our ways of shopping to reduce our waste.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. As portion sizes have increased in recent years, so has food waste (a 50% increase since the 1970s). Ordering smaller restaurant portions or taking home the leftovers will reduce waste there. Then don’t forget to eat the leftovers so they don’t end up in the trash at home!
  • Consider composting if you have a yard. At my house, all of our fruit and vegetable scraps go into our compost bin (along with leaves and grass). Although our county frowns on this because they say the food attracts animals, it is not a problem as long as you don’t put any animal products in the compost. We benefit by reducing our trash volume, and by having rich compost to add to our garden.
  • Get involved with a gleaning group. To glean means going in after a crop has been harvested and gathering the small amounts of fruit or vegetables that remain. Farmers will often invite charitable groups to come in for gleaning after the profitable part of the harvest is over. The produce is then donated to groups that feed the needy.
  • The next time you look in the refrigerator and say “There’s nothing to eat”, challenge yourself to make a meal using what you have on hand, instead of going out to buy more that might just be thrown away.

Finally, eat with mindfulness and appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “When we sit down to dinner and look at our plate filled with fragrant and appetizing food, we can nourish our awareness of the bitter pain of people who suffer from hunger…Doing so will help us maintain mindfulness of our good fortune, and perhaps one day we will find ways to do something to help change the system of injustice that exists in the world.”

My simple season

When my kids were small, they had a Little Golden Book called My Book of the Seasons. This book had an appealing way of using alliteration and repetition to bring to life the change of seasons. For each season, the book described traditional, iconic imagery, such as pumpkins and snowflakes, and then asked, “Can you see it, can you hear it, can you smell it?” It was wonderful to read out loud.

I think of the book fairly frequently, especially now when I am enjoying the  transition from late spring to early summer. At the beach for Memorial Day weekend, I have had my first local peaches and strawberries of the year. I’ve been basking in the warm sun on the sand. I’ve been taking in the aromas of the plants, as well as the smells of backyard barbeques. I’ve been listening to the birds calling to each other and the children splashing in the waves. Yes, I can feel it, I can smell it and I can taste it. Summer is here!

There’s something incredibly elemental about using the senses to experience the change of seasons. And while a lot of change can be unsettling to people, there is something comforting in the cycle of the seasons, and in knowing that these simple pleasures of summer (or any other season) will be available year after year.

This is also the easiest time of year to simplify and improve how we eat. John Schlimm, the author of a couple of vegan cookbooks, described his style of cooking recently on a radio program. One of his criteria is that all the ingredients he uses have to be available in any neighborhood supermarket, even in the smallest towns. The point is, we don’t need exotic ingredients to make a wonderful-tasting, healthy meal. And with summer here, the farmers’ markets are open, the fruits are ripening, the tomatoes are full of flavor, and there is an abundance of choices. Mmmm…I can see it, I can smell it, I can taste it….

Summer offers itself to us as a lesson in simplicity. It’s not just that the food is fresher and more basic. Our pace slows as we take school breaks and work vacations.  We don’t need to wear heavy clothes so our bodies feel lighter and easier. We can be more in touch with nature because it’s so easy to step outside. All that is required of us is to pay attention and make the choice to enjoy the simple pleasures without asking for more.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about voluntary simplicity as “seeing less  so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so that I can have more”. I see the truth of his words today when I feel so incredibly rich because of the simplest things I have – good, fresh food, beautiful surroundings, warm air, blue skies, and loving people.  

People often talk about simplifying their lives. But what they don’t realize is that there’s no “doing” involved in it. It’s all right in front of us already. Like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, who realized that she could go home any time she wanted, all we have to do is say, “I can see it, I can hear it, I can feel it…”

Earth Day 2012…

…and it’s raining a steady, drenching rain. It is cold and miserable, yet nourishing to our plants and soil, which were snow-deprived all winter. It’s a good day to sit inside and think about what the day means and how I can do my part to make my piece of the Earth a healthier place.

When Earth Day started 40 years ago, it was in response to an an oil spill, and it ignited a new focus on environmental activism and political action. Much of the Earth Day messaging has been about energy use, clean air and water, and more recently, climate change. The theme for Earth Day last year was “A Billion Acts of Green”, and currently the counter on the EDN web site shows over 999 million acts of green submitted by visitors to the site.

The theme for the Earth Day Network this year is “Mobilize the Earth”, calling on people worldwide to unite their words and actions to create a sustainable future. “A Billion Acts of Green” and “Mobilize the Earth” speak to the idea that small actions can add up to a large impact, and that it will take all of us together to make the world a better place to live and grow.

So I’ve been thinking about what acts of green I can add to my life. I already recycle as much of my trash as I can, freecycle some unwanted items and donate others, try to use gadgets as long as possible before buying new ones, responsibly recycle my electronics, use an electric lawn mower, combine errands in the car when possible, and respond to appeals from Clean Water Action and other environmental groups. What’s left?

  • Being more mindful of water use. My local water company says that 70 gallons is the typical daily per person water usage in our area. My household is a little lower than that, but it’s still vastly greater than people use in other countries. Millions of people in the world don’t have access to a reliable source of clean water at all.
  • Riding my bike instead of driving. Last summer I bought a pannier for my bicycle, determined that I was going to start riding to the grocery store. I did it exactly once before the weather got cold. (I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to riding in cold weather). I am going to set a goal of substituting the bike for the car once a week this spring and summer. This has the added benefit of being exercise too!
  • Making “meatless Mondays” a habit. We’ve been gradually incorporating this idea in our house and 2012 could be the year to solidify it. The meatless Monday trend has the benefit of being good for the environment (lots of CO2 comes from cattle), saving water (it takes a lot more water to raise animals for meat than it does to grow plants) and making us healthier too. The Meatless Mondays web site has lots of great recipe ideas and other tips on how to incorporate this idea into your life.
  • Volunteering. Yes, I belong to environmental organizations, write letters occasionally, and send them money sometimes. But I used to do more, such as cleaning up my local stream and volunteering for environmental organizations. I can do that again.

I read back over the steps I’m proposing to take, and I see how intertwined my well-being is with that of the Earth. Eating less meat, exercising more and being connected to my community will all benefit me while I am getting “greener”. My individual future is inextricably linked to the future of my world. As Aldo Leopold once said, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Finding my balance

After two long weekends in a row away from home, I am still struggling with a feeling of disequilibrium. Don’t get me wrong – both weekends were a lot of fun, and I don’t regret going away. It’s just that I feel off-balance from having so little time at home in between.

In the language of stress, this is what is called “eustress”. It’s the good kind of stress, the kind that comes with a happy event or something else that is desirable. But it still throws us off balance in a way that is similar to negative events. It knocks us out of our usual routines, and makes demands on our bodies and minds.

For some people, travel might be routine, but for me, not so much. The first thing that goes off-kilter when I travel is exercise. My careful routine of running, yoga, and weight-training two times a week is out the window. If I’m lucky, I get in one run and maybe some quick yoga.

Eating also changes. Sometimes the food choices aren’t so healthy, or the mealtimes are erratic, or there’s too much or too little of something. Fruit is something I don’t eat nearly enough of when I am away from home.

Sleep habits might also suffer. Strange or uncomfortable beds, noisy rooms, and time changes can all cause problems.

Mentally, the demands can be more subtle. If we’re traveling for pleasure, we try to shift to vacation mode, but work might still be on our minds, especially if we think about all the things that aren’t getting done while we’re away. If the trip is business-related, we might feel like we are missing out on family time. So we are not fully present in the place we’re supposed to be.

Then, just when we’re getting used to the place we’re in, it’s time to go home!

Now we’re faced with the work that is undone, the people who need our presence and the myriad details of our lives that need to be dealt with. Sometimes it can take days to catch up. Essentially, we are trying to regain “homeostasis”, our steady state.

David Agus, who has a new book out called The End of Illness, argues that to be healthiest, people need to keep to a regular daily schedule of eating, exercise, sleep and relaxation. Most people might find it difficult to eat meals or exercise at the same time every day as he suggests, but I can see how it might be very helpful during times of stress, whether that stress is eustress (good) or distress (bad).

When I get back from a trip, my sense of focus is poor. I don’t know which task to tackle first. The temptation is to skip exercise or sleep, and to use the time to catch up on all I’ve missed. That’s probably the worst thing that I could do. Getting back to my regular schedule will ultimately make me more productive.

Here’s what I’ve observed during my first days back:

  • Right before I left for my first trip, I started doing a 21-day meditation challenge on the Chopra Center web site. Although I missed a couple of days while I was away, I have been pretty diligent about doing the meditations once or twice a day since then. That has helped to keep me grounded and calm.
  • I’ve gone back to reasonably healthy eating, although I find that I am unusually hungry at odd times of the day. That’s probably the result of not eating on a regular schedule while I was away. But I’m expecting that in a couple more days, I’ll be back on track.
  • The exercise habit is kicking back in. It helps that the weather is warmer this week and I’ll be able to run outside over the weekend. That will also help with sleep and appetite.
  • By tomorrow, I’ll probably be caught up on my work, and I’ll feel good about that.

Am I looking forward to my next trip? Yes, but I’m glad it won’t be for at least a month. While I relish the challenge and stimulation of travel and new experiences, I’m happy now for the comfort and well-being of home and habit.

5 Intentions for a Happy Thanksgiving

Six days and counting until Thanksgiving…what will your holiday look like? Calm or frantic? Happy or conflicted? Holidays can be stressful, often bringing out the worst in us if we let them. In yoga class, our teacher sometimes asks us to “set an intention” for the practice: something that we would like to focus on or work toward. In that spirit, here are my intentions for the next few days; maybe they will work for you too:

1. Spend time each day planning for the next one.

Time management gurus like Brian Tracy say that each minute spent planning will save 5 to 10 minutes in carrying out the task. This can be accomplished by sitting down each evening for 5 minutes to make lists, check the next day’s calendar, and block out time for priority tasks. Focusing on the most important tasks for each day, dividing them up to correspond with blocks of free time, and eliminating unnecessary tasks will help each day be more productive.

2. Ask for and accept help; take shortcuts when they serve me.

No one can do it all. So let go of the perfectionist tendencies and controlling instincts. Graciously allow others to help with the shopping, cook part of the meal, or set the table. Most likely they will be glad to be asked. Buy some foods already-prepared, especially the ones you don’t excel at or find tedious to prepare (gravy comes to mind!)

3. Take care of myself.

When people feel better, they can be more present for those they care about. During stressful holiday times, it is more important than ever to make health a priority. Exercising will give you more energy. Drinking plenty of water will help fight fatigue and improve appearance. Eating healthy in the days leading up to Thanksgiving feels good and allows for guilt-free splurging on the big day. And if stress catches up with you anyway, take five minutes just to sit and breathe.

4. Have fun each day.

Scheduling time for play or recreation is part of time management too. We all deserve a break to watch a funny movie or play a game with the family. These shared experiences will become part of everyone’s memories of the holiday.

5. Remember to be thankful.

Voltaire once said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a good time to think about what that means. Don’t strive for a perfect meal worthy of Martha Stewart, but one that will be joyfully eaten with family and friends. If your home isn’t perfectly cleaned and decorated, be glad that it is full of warmth and good cheer. Replace criticism of loved ones with appreciation, even with all of their quirks and imperfections.

As I celebrate Thanksgiving, I will keep these words of Thornton Wilder in mind: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”