What is contentment? It can be a confusing word. Does it mean happiness and satisfaction, or is it an excuse to avoid challenges? After all, the state of contentment is often interchanged with complacency. Look at online forums and you’ll notice this confusion, with questions like:
Should I strive to be content?
How do I reach contentment?
Why don’t I feel content?
One thing contentment isn’t, is a final destination. It’s simply an attitude and one that’s changeable, as are all emotions. Contentment is reliant on our own thoughts and choices.
So, why do we think contentment is some kind of place we need to get to and stay at, forever?
What is contentment? A state of flow
Next time you’re near a 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 is usually polluted because its flow has stopped.
Contentment 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 most often defined as feeling satisfied by a result or situation. However, it really doesn’t have anything to do with pleasure or external circumstances. Herein lies the problem, because we tend to search for contentment as a fixed state, rather than choose to experience it throughout life in general.
For example, you may feel content 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 over and over, chat with the same people forever or keep achieving the same results.
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.
What is contentment versus stagnation?
This concept can be visualised via the image of Norm from the Life Be in It ads from the 1980s. If you’re not Australian, I’m sure you’ll recognise the stereotype regardless. Norm, short for Norman, 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. This society-driven image has fooled many into thinking doing nothing, or complacency, is associated with contentment.
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 provide so-called ‘contentment’, rather than deliberately choosing to feel contented with our choices about how we live on a transient basis.
It is relaxing to sit on the couch and chill out with Netflix or the latest news on social media. 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 have these repetitive, brain-numbing activities, 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 of 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.
The same could be said for stay-at-home parents or retirees who’ve succumbed to unrelenting daily routines, or anyone who has put their entire life in the collective ‘this is what contentment means’ box. It’s usually an excuse 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 boring. In that nearly comatose state, what is there to do but flop on the couch and completely escape life by watching someone else’s version of it?
No wonder people experience a mid-life crisis.
False contentment leads to stagnation
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 apparently content. You can easily tell the difference between the blissful, transient emotion of contentment, and routine contentment that leads 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, own or rent a home and go on a holiday once in a while. But, you don’t feel real enthusiasm to do any of your duties at work, you don’t ever jump out of bed with excitement and you think about that holiday once a year as a reward for all the long, boring 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. This is because you’ve trapped yourself in a very nice fishbowl, circling round and round without change. It’s 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.
Don’t be content with the status quo
Fooling ourselves into thinking we’re 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 and watch the same TV shows every night.
All that contentment and routine hasn’t made him a very happy chappie. It’s made him a complacent one, leading to a life that, in reality, offers very few rewards.
No matter your age, your higher self yearns for challenges, growth and movement. Even the slightest change in a routine can make a difference. Take a new path on your morning walk, wear a colour you’ve never worn, go to a culturally-rich place for a holiday, play music instead of automatically turning the TV on, try something exotic to eat, make something, build something, create something…as long as it’s new.
When complacency and boredom set in, don’t confuse it with contentment. If you are truly content in life, you’ll know because most days you’ll be getting out of bed feeling excited about a new day, present and motivated in what you’re doing – whatever it is.
Just like pruning plants, you have to prune back your own beliefs in order to discard the dried up, useless segments and leave room for new, more beautiful and 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, and dive right in after them.