I was talking to two friends about contentment. We all find ourselves to be in a state of contentment with our lives. It is an excellent state to be in.
People talk a lot about happiness, but I have little interest in happiness. I would much rather be content. The difference to me is that happiness is an emotional state that comes and goes based on one’s momentary circumstances, but contentment is an overall state of satisfaction and acceptance of one’s life and general circumstances. I am not always happy with my job, but I am content to have a job, and I am content with the kind of work that I do. I am not always happy with my wife, but I am content to be married with her, and I am content with the quality of our relationship.
There are two components to contentment, as far as I can see. First, one must do the things that will lead to contentment. Second, one must choose to be content, which includes accepting some things as they are rather than wishing for an unachievable ideal.
Doing the things that will lead to contenment included, for me, getting a good education, embarking on a career that I find fulfilling, marrying a spouse with whom I am compatible, having children, cultivating a few close friendships, and being a kind, considerate person. When I consider those aspects of my life, I get a sense that everything is as it should be, and that is what I call contentment.
After all, if there is some area of my life in which I am not content, I can probably change it. If I am not content with my career, I could, with a lot of time, effort, and expense, make a major shift to another job. Others have done so. If I am not content with my marriage, I can take steps to make it better. What I cannot change, I can accept for what it is and make the best of it. I can seek contentment in other things, in that case.
In addition to shaping my life so as to foster contentment, I make a conscious choice to be content. I do not let a momentary disappointment or frustration undercut the general satisfaction and appreciation I feel for the people in my life or for the circumstances in which I find myself. I make a conscious choice to accept what I have and avoid longing for things that I cannot have or should not have. I forbid myself to envy others.
I accept what is not perfect, since nothing is. I do not let my wife’s flaws bring me down. I do not let problems at work shatter my overall joy at being there. I set realistic expectations for what life is like, and it is not always pleasant, easy, or convenient. Accepting that fact, which my parents first taught me by saying that life isn’t fair, is a must for anyone who wishes to be content.
I have less than a lot of other folks, when it comes to material goods. That’s okay for three reasons: (1) I have all that I need and a little bit more, (2) to a large extent I knew that the career I chose would not make me wealthy, and (3) I have things that matter a whole lot more than material wealth. I wouldn’t trade the peace and fulfillment that I feel with my life for any amount of money.
I realize, too, that I have more than a lot of other folks. This realization fills me with gratitude and inspires me to be generous and helpful to others.
In short, I live the Serenity Prayer. I pray it often, although I do not pray it daily. I do not believe in performing any behavior that could become a meaningless haibt or an empty ritual, but I pray it often to remind myself how I can be content:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.