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?

What it means to be happy humans

Today I attended a discussion on the question, “Are we losing our humanity?” It was a wide-ranging conversation on what it means to be human, how the study of humanities serves us, and what it means to put the humanities into practice in daily life.

One of the many topics that came up was reading, and the importance of reading in helping us develop as human beings. One of the panelists commented that “reading is the vehicle for getting us into narrative,” and that narratives (stories) teach us about human behavior, which can be the basis for discussions about society.

This reminded me of something that my children’s elementary school principal used to say: “Reading is the way in, writing is the way out.” Although she never specified in and out of what, I have some ideas on it in the context of what I heard today: Reading is the way in to your mind, to your inner self, to a deeper understanding of life. Writing (and other forms of expression, especially speaking) is the way out to the world, out to society, out of yourself and into your community.

So to “do” humanities involves engagement in the world. But that’s another area that troubled some of today’s panelists – what is true engagement, true connection, in today’s world? Technology allows us to “talk” all the time, but does it help us listen, truly listen, to others? Certainly we’ve seen that the decline of listening has made us less tolerant of others’ opinions, and less likely to change our own.

Part of that issue is the shrinking of people’s attention spans. We communicate in ever more truncated “language”, we engage in shorter and shorter bursts of activity, and our brains are changing accordingly. Many of us would be hard-pressed to sit and listen to someone for any length of time. In order to be fully engaged as citizens of the world and members of our communities do we need to reverse that trend? Should we be re-training our brains to be able to pay attention and focus for longer periods? There was talk today of the “slow reading” movement – literally an attempt to get people to “move away from the computer” for a while and sit with a book, reading slowly and carefully, even re-reading favorite texts.

Modern life has been made easier by technology and by many of the societal changes that have occurred; but I don’t think that people are really much happier than they were two or three generations ago. Martin Seligman and others who study happiness have developed a three-part model of what happiness is. It includes positive emotion (the kind that comes from having pleasurable experiences), engagement (being in the “flow”, fully absorbed by some activity), and meaning. Tweeting and texting and multi-tasking might provide moments of pleasure, but I doubt that they can generate that feeling of flow that comes with full engagement, let alone supply meaning to our lives.

Engagement and meaning are more likely to be found in reading a book that touches something in your soul; listening to music that moves you; seeing a piece of art or a play that provokes ideas or controversy; writing a letter or a journal; or learning something new. The ways that we assimilate those experiences and make them a part of us opens the door for a deeper connection with others and something larger than ourselves. That’s what makes us happy.

So maybe the question is, are the humanities the key to more happiness in life?

Be kind

“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a harder battle,” says the Plato quote that is on the plate displayed in my kitchen. “Be kind…be kind…be kind…” Why is it so hard to keep that mantra in my head?

For instance, I’m always baffled by how quickly after finishing a yoga class I can sometimes be not nice to someone! Whether it’s swearing at another driver, or snapping at a store clerk, it seems that my mellow mood evaporates as soon as I walk out the door. Why is that?

Like compassion, kindness is easier when the recipient is someone we love, or someone vulnerable, or someone clearly suffering through no fault of his own. It is much more difficult to practice when the other person is a stranger, or someone unlikeable, or someone who has clearly done something wrong. Being kind in that situation requires a degree of mindfulness and intention that needs to be cultivated purposefully in most of us.

Emotions like anger or impatience are always preceded by a thought, if only for a split second. That’s the moment when we have a choice of how to respond to a situation. Too often, we get trapped by our notions of how things should be, and our “choice” of response is harsh and unkind. Strangely, though, we don’t usually feel better after yelling at someone, but we do have feelings of well-being after acting kindly.

Olpin and Hesson have developed a framework of “levels of responding.” At one end of the spectrum are attachment, rightness, judgment, blaming, resistance and complaining – responses that are usually not effective and result in negative emotions. At the other end are observation (noticing without judgment), discovery (seeking to learn and understand), acceptance and gratitude – responses that are more effective and result in positive emotions. Studies conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky  and others also show that people who practiced a variety of random acts of kindness experienced an increase in happiness.

It’s so easy to make every situation personal. Why did she do that to me? Why did that person cut me off? Why is he so mean to me? It might not have anything to do with me. It might be accidental, it might be that the person is having a bad day; it might be that the person is in pain. When we stop judging, stop personalizing, and start trying to understand, it becomes a lot easier to respond with kindness, or at least with acceptance.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.” Plato’s reminder in my kitchen makes me realize that kindness is not something to master, but something to practice. Luckily, I meet someone every day who gives me the chance to do just that.

Happiness is…

“We tend to seek happiness… when really happiness is a choice” says a piece of art that I’ve seen in a catalog. I try to live that idea, and last year I came across a video on the TED website that sums it up nicely. It is a talk by Srikumar Rao about not waiting to be happy until some event or change of condition happens. Rao believes that we are hard-wired for happiness (think of babies and how often they laugh). He essentially says that we have everything we need to be happy right now.

When we’re kids, we joyfully sing about happiness. “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands…” or as Charlie Brown sings, “…Happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.” But when does that unbounded happiness of childhood start eroding, and all of the worry, inferiority and judgment of life take hold? Do we recognize happiness when it is right under our noses?

If you go on the Amazon web site and do a search for self-help books about happiness, 8,894 results come back. Clearly, people are spending a lot of time (and money) figuring out how to be happy.

My students have been working lately with the idea of locus of control. Having an internal locus of control means that you take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions, while an external locus of control suggests that you tend to blame other people or outside events for how things turn out. While it can be tempting, and maybe immediately gratifying, to shift control to luck or outside influences, people are generally healthier and handle stress better when they take responsibility for their own behavior and its outcome.

I think of happiness in a similar fashion. Why blame someone else because you are unhappy? Why wait for the right job or the right house or the right person to be happy? Why not make the decision to be happy right now, in this moment? It doesn’t mean everything will be perfect in your life; you just decide to be happy anyway, without waiting.

How can we recapture some of our hard-wired happiness? In every moment, we have a choice of how to respond. By consciously shifting our responses to gratitude and acceptance, rather than resistance and judgment, we can move one step closer to joy, contentment and happiness.

Robert Green Ingersoll once said, “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here…”