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Why contentment is a state we should all hope to attain

What keeps us going? What makes us keep striving to be more, do more, have more? Is it a necessary human trait, to hanker and to grow? We could call it ambition or aspiration. But I also have other words to for you to consider: greed, obsession, and sickness.

The need to have and be more is a big spur in this life; it is why so many keep working and striving, why businesses keep growing and competing. It seems natural and necessary. But is it, really?

As I have written before, what keeps many going is the habit of looking sideways—long glances at what everyone else is doing. The problem is not that we don’t have enough; it’s that others have more. Why does that person have a bigger car than I do; why do our neighbours holiday in exotic climes; why do our benchmark competitors always seem to grow faster than we do?

This habit is entrenched everywhere, from kitchen tables to board tables. Our always-on screens make it worse. Oh, is that where everyone else is—why wasn’t I invited? How can they afford that holiday? Am I the only one who doesn’t wear a designer watch? How nice is this family’s furniture and decor, compared to our tatty place? Are those the margins our competitor achieved last quarter? What the hell is wrong with us?

So it begins, and so it continues. A vortex of envy, dissatisfaction, and unending aspiration consumes us. The mantra of more—more possessions, more achievements, more success, more applause—paradoxically leads to less. Less meaning, less fulfilment, less happiness. The fullest life, packed with much attainment and much investment, is sometimes the emptiest one.

At some stage in life, and certainly as we get older, a different concept should start to take root: that of contentment. Many studies show this. Contentment is a significant contributor to overall happiness and wellbeing. Researchers in positive psychology, in particular, find strong support for contentment—a state of satisfaction and acceptance of one’s current situation—as a life enabler. Social comparison theory confirms that those who are frequently and incessantly comparing themselves to others, are often those who get very little taste of happiness.

It is like running faster on a treadmill. The higher effort and speed brings us no closer to a different place. We just expend more and more energy doing much the same thing, running and running towards an imaginary goal, without actually moving.

After a certain age, endless aspiration is even more silly. There’s a natural limit to the ambitions of every person—it’s called a lifespan. At some point, like it or not, all this growth and expansion comes to a sudden and total halt. Why do we continue to want more, even as the end is nigh? That’s when the whole thing starts to look like a sickness. I have watched people who, even in their advanced dotage, are trying to squeeze in another deal, eyeing another property, taking another luxury holiday, fighting another election, starting another business. And then—gone. Full stop.

There is actually no need to experience heaven and hell after death—it can feel like it right here. Author James Clear recently shared this profound thought: “You can go to hell without moving an inch, just focus on what you don’t have. You can taste heaven without leaving earth, just rejoice in what you have.”

So, so true. Hell is a place where the obsession to have something you don’t have burns you every day; heaven arrives when what you actually have gives a quiet satisfaction.

I don’t ask anyone to eschew ambition or suppress one’s natural human drive for improvement. But the healthy drive occurs when the results are measured on one’s own terms, not by the fickle and shallow act of comparison. Contentment is not complacency; it is about growing in ways that bring joy. When we advance like this, we can find pleasure even in modest advancement, and feel no envy or diminishment when viewing the achievements of others. The pursuit of contentment is not a retreat from ambition, then, but a reorientation towards a success that is very personal, perpetually within reach, and easy to sustain.

How nice is it to wake up and think I am just great as I am? I have done enough, and have enough. More would be a bonus, but it’s not an intense longing. I am happy in myself, in this skin, in these clothes, in this home. A little more would be nice, but is not at all necessary. I live my life on my terms. I am beholden to no one. Whatever I strive for and work for is my choice, and no one else’s. I decide how much is enough for me. Only my own judgements, and those of the people I care about, matter to me. The world out there is out there, not in here. It can be as manic and consumptive and fickle as it likes; I live on my own terms.

That’s contentment. How does it sound?


Taking a short break next Sunday, folks. Back from 14 April.

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