Monday, September 29, 2014

the season of contentment

A recent study done by a friend undertaking demographic research for her Masters degree, uncovered that the unhappiest group of people by far are those in my own age group.  How can this be? We are the smart, supposedly emotionally aware group who are homeowners, parents, partners, socially successful - all the good things right?  
Well it would seem that we're almost the most unhappy because of this huge pressure  on us to live in the moment these days (carpe diem!) and yet to also be constantly looking for improvement. We live in a culture that demands us to be driven, ambitious and constantly looking for the next big thing, the next big adventure or the next step on our career ladder/home ownership plan/social scale.  We want more stuff, more experiences, more fulfilling careers and personal relationships, more success. More. More. More. 
I'm all for ambition and I'm also all for seeking, and keeping,  that elusive happiness that we as humans crave.  There's a theory around at the moment that gets people thinking about whether they are past, present or future thinkers.  The idea is actually applied to corporate/business thinking, but my reflections are really about how it can be applied to every day life.  
So does the problem really lie in our need to be always bettering ourselves, whether that be a job, a hobby, or maybe even a relationship?  A generation ago I am sure people were more 'satisfied with their lot', or at least they were able to dream dreams, have plans, but not feel the overwhelming desire to MAKE IT HAPPEN even minute of the day.  So maybe the different between them and us - or more accurately, the difference between people who never seem to be ''settled'' and those that are, is not an ability to forgo, or  let go of, plans and dreams, and nor is it a dubious ability to settle/compromise/appease their current state of being, but simply the ability to be content. 

Socrates“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
― Socrates

Lev Grossman
“[F]or just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there's nothing else. It's here, and you'd better decide to enjoy it or you're going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.”
― Lev GrossmanThe Magicians
Charles H. Spurgeon
“You say, 'If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.' You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”
― Charles H. Spurgeon

My favourite of the above quotes is the middle one.  I have been guilty so often of thinking ''when x happens my life will really start'', or ''things would be absolutely perfect if only x changed''.  Worse, I have probably spent far too many hours of my life looking wistfully at the lives of others, and wanting what they have, and not enough hours looking back into my own and being glad for what I have myself. Many is the day I have been completely sorry for myself - not enough money, geographically isolated from ''where the action is'', tied to the house by small kids, unsatisfying (or non existent) job... whatever the problem of the day was...and have not taken time to be content with what I have.   From the outside looking in my life probably looks pretty why don't I appreciate it more!
When I asked my long time married friends what the secret to staying married is, they looked almost blankly at me to begin with, but concluded, after much discussion, that they key was simply to being able to appreciate the moments of each day for what they were.  Everyone I asked conceded that they had had plenty of ''i wish this were different'' moments.  Occasional temptations (human or otherwise). Hard times.  Moments of dislike and disappointment in their spouse.  But that, on the balance, by exercising some rational thought, plenty of deep breaths, and a healthy dose of  self control, they could find happiness..even being content with life.  It didn't mean stopping dreaming, or giving up on the future with resignation, but it did mean making a deliberate and conscious effort to be thankful for where they were in the present, without having to fill that present with excitement or thrill - just to be ''content'' with their life.  
There is no doubt that the people I know who are the unhappiest are also the least content.  And the ''happiest'' hold a mindset of contentment (and again I reiterate that doesn't mean that they are goal less, direction less or indulging in unimaginative uneventful lives - just that they appreciate fully the place they are in right now, resulting in a peaceful attitude to life  that I both admire and desire)
I guess it's partly what my Nana used to call counting blessings. It's partly about knowing that some dreams will only ever be dreams and that's OK.  It's partly about remembering that the human condition is to always want more and possibly never been satisfied.  (the Augustine concept of the God shaped vacuum).  
Wikipedia says (so it must be true right...) that contentment is an attitude not an attainment. 
So though it might be an oxymoron, I strive to be content.  

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