What is contentment? It can be a confusing word. Look at online forums and you’ll see the meaning of it constantly questioned: “Should I strive to be happy or content?” “How do I reach contentment?” One thing contentment isn’t, is a final destination. It’s simply an emotion, one that’s as changeable as all emotions. One that is reliant, completely, on our own thoughts and choices.
So why do we think ‘contentment’ is a place we need to get to?
Next time you’re near a rainforest creek, look closely at the water streaming over the rocks, on its way to an adventurous leap off a mountain. It’s clean, clear and vibrantly swirling. It contains a lot of dissolved oxygen, because it’s continuously churning and therefore aerated.
Stare into a puddle of water that’s been trapped within rocks and logs. It’s usually brown, covered in algae and littered with debris. Oxygen only touches the surface, and bacteria eventually consumes the dissolved oxygen underneath – meaning most aquatic life have a hard time living in it, and we certainly shouldn’t drink it.
The water we can drink flows constantly. The water we can’t drink, polluted water, is usually polluted because its flow has stopped.
Contentment, like anything else, is a transient emotion, but one that’s been caught up in ideas and beliefs suggesting we should all aim for contentment as an end result of years of hard work in some way or another. As if the emotion of ‘contentment’ is the destination of life.
‘Contentment’ is defined as feeling satisfied by a result, or reaching full capacity in something or simply being present and at peace with your current activity – like reading a book or sitting around chatting with friends. However, you wouldn’t want to read the same book forever, sit with the same friends forever or keep achieving the same results forever.
Contentment, when trapped and contained as a, “this is as good as it’s going to get, so I better stick to the same thing,” scenario, turns into stagnation.
This concept can be visualised via the image of ‘Norm’ from the ‘Life Be in It’ ads from the 1980’s (for Aussie’s anyway – if you’re not Australian, I’m sure you’ll recognise the stereotype). ‘Norm’ basically sits on the couch, watching TV, with a beer resting on his protruding beer gut, portraying a stereotypical Aussie. He’s smiling and presumably content; he just doesn’t know how unhealthy his lifestyle is.
These days, it’s trendy to exercise and look and feel good, and it’s not so trendy to be like ‘Norm’. However, though we now exercise more and make better food choices – we often still rely on the same old routines to offer so-called ‘contentment’, rather than feeling ‘contented’ with our choices about how we live on a transient basis.
It is fun/nice/relaxing to sit on the couch and chill out. But when, and how, did this become the only activity people choose to do day after day, night after night? How did this become the ‘reward’ for working hard? How has this, a repetitive, brain-numbing activity, become a symbol of contentment?
We can feel like it’s a reward, because it’s such a relief to flop on the couch after the daily grind: getting up at the same time, driving to work the same way, doing the same work, talking to the same people, eating the same lunch in the same place and driving back home the same way – 5 to 7 days a week.
The same could be said for stay- at -home mothers or retirees who’ve succumbed to stringent daily routines, or anyone who has put their entire life in the collective ‘this is what contentment means’ box in order to comfortably do the same thing day in day out, thereby avoiding anything remotely associated with growth or change.
And it’s so so tiring because it’s so so boring and in that nearly comatose state, what is there to do but flop on the couch and completely escape your own life by watching someone else’s version of it?
Hmmm…No wonder people experience mid-life crisis.
Just like polluted water starved of flow, we can become stagnant and covered in the mould of prolonged, status quo, ‘contentment’. It acts like a drug, lulling you into an emotionless state where nothing much matters at all anymore, because you’re so ‘content’. You can easily tell the difference between the blissful, transient emotion of contentment, and routine contentment, leading to stagnation. Here’s an example of routine contentment leading to stagnation:
- You like your job most of the time and even feel lucky to have a job. You get enough money to eat and have a house and go on a holiday once in a while. But, you don’t feel any real excitement to do any of your duties at work, you don’t ever really jump out of bed to go to work in complete happiness and you think about that holiday once a year as a reward for all the long, boring (though perfectly fine) hours you put in. You’re most likely irritated by small things and you often look for an escape from your present situation – mainly due to boredom.
Following 40 years of this, you could be looking at your wife or friend or pet in the same way, your house in the same way, your neighbours, the food you eat and everything in your entire world in the same way – because you’ve trapped yourself in a very nice, contented, fish bowl. Because you’ve never made any changes. Because you’ve decided to stop growing due to fear of change or by thinking you’re living life just like everyone else does – so it must be fine.
Fooling ourselves into thinking we are ‘content’ with the status quo, or that we need to be, leads to complacency and boredom. Eventually, ‘Norm’, from the stereotype above, becomes the grumpy old man next door who always yells at the kids for being too loud and mumbles about ‘the youth of today’ while trying to find the pair of brown slippers he’s worn for 40 years so he can sit on the chair he’s sat on for 40 years and watch the same TV shows he watches every night.
All that contentment and routine hasn’t made him a very happy chappie.
No matter your age, your higher self yearns for change and growth and movement. Even the slightest change in a routine can make a difference. Take a different path on your morning walk, wear a colour you’ve never worn before, go to a brand new place for a holiday, play music instead of automatically turning the TV on, try something new to eat, make something, build something, create something…new.
When complacency and boredom set in, don’t confuse it with society’s version of ‘contentment’. If you are truly happy with that version of life, you’ll know because most days you’ll be getting out of bed feeling excited about a new day and feeling present and motivated in what you’re doing – whatever it is.
You have to prune back your own beliefs, for the same reason we prune plants, in order to discard the old, dried up, useless segments and leave room for new, more beautiful, more bountiful growth.
When you feel the claws of stagnation producing mould on your own ‘lake of life’ – acknowledge it. Then put your finger in the still surface of the water. Watch the ripples span out towards new opportunities, new discoveries, new passions for life – and dive in after them.
Knowing, of course, that you’re not supposed to sit in there, following just one ripple, forever – when you start turning ‘pruny’, it’s definitely time to get out.