Why is it so Hard to be Content in Life?
A man climbed a mountain and found a guru sitting in tranquility at its summit. “You can ask me any question you wish, my son.”
The man took a moment to gather his words. Finally, he stammered, “Where are my sunglasses?”
The guru was taken aback. “They’re on top of your head.” He replied.
“Oh! Of course, I always do that,” said the man as he turned to walk away.
“Don’t you have anything else you want to ask me?” The guru said, mildly perturbed.
“Not really,” said the man. “You haven’t heard of Google, have you?”
I am a serial malcontent.
No matter how good life is, and no matter how thankful I feel, I’m always aware of how things could be better. It isn’t always pessimistic of me. It’s usually motivated by self-improvement. Of course, I do a good job quieting this inner voice to enjoy the moment. But it gets louder from time to time, and reminds me of my discontent.
This voice asks me if I’ve found the meaning of life. It asks me whether or not I’m satisfied with the way things are. It questions whether or not I’ve done enough–it wonders whether I am enough.
Our age has put away its pilgrimages and shrines, trading them in for Google and Facebook. We know that our longings are uniquely our own, and that no simple answer or formula will do for us. Blindly following a guru is how you end up in a cult, right?
So we distract ourselves with trivialities, and we suspend our disappointments.
And we, only sometimes, ask: “is this all there is?”
Some people don’t consciously struggle with questions of contentment. But they deal with it under the surface the same way everyone else does. We nitpick one another, and we air our grievances when we feel we have a right to complain. We’re offended when others disappoint us, and our motivation wanes when times get tough. We start considering a new career, or a new relationship. We feel our appetite for change is justified.
In the face of discontentment, major branches of philosophy has tried to answer the question, “does life have meaning?”
I will summarize their answers here.
Answering this question in the abstract won’t help you, because you’ll still be left dealing with discontentment in your day-to-day. You will keep daydreaming about a better career, or a more loving community, or why God cursed you to cheer for the Maple Leafs. A philosophical answer to the meaning of life–no matter how right it is–will not satisfy the ache for more from life. We have thousands of years of human history that prove this.
Instead, ask yourself, “what will it take for me to be content?”
Contentment doesn’t come from the outside in. It starts, instead, in the present moment–right in the middle of your dissatisfaction!
Contentment happens when you choose the life you already have.
Our past is a collection of memories, stitched together into our own meaningful story. Some of it is true, and some of it is false. Our future is a set of possibilities, limited only by our imagination–and our imagination can free us, or destroy us!
But our present is all we really possess.
Viktor Frankl talks about this in his legendary work, “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It’s one of those books that should be mandatory for all human beings. As a psychologist who survived the Holocaust, he had more of a right than anyone to choose discontentment. Instead, he said,
This is not a mental trick. It certainly isn’t easy, and sometimes there are major issues in the way. If you’re in pain, or if you’re intentionally causing other people pain, you will have lost your ability to choose the present–and you’ll likely need some help getting that back.
The secret to contentment is to treat this life–the one you have here and now–as a gift. It isn’t perfect and it never will be. You will never fix all of your problems, and you will never reach your own illusive version of success.
But this is okay.
You can either become fatalistic things, and turn to cynicism and bitterness in the face of what you cannot change. Or you can choose joy, because you’ve let go of your expectations.
You see, life isn’t just a gift you receive. It’s a gift you give yourself to.
You are enough for the life you have.
You are perfectly positioned to celebrate what you’ve been given. Stop wondering whether you would do better in someone else’s shoes, or whether someone else would make more of your life if they were in yours.
Rest in the present moment, and make peace with it. Choose contentment in the midst of the chaos.
And use Google for everything else.