We all want to feel happier, but pursuing happiness directly can be a self-defeating paradox. The more you chase happiness, the more it recedes over the horizon, never fully materializing. At least not for long.
And why do we find happiness so elusive? Because it’s just a mood state like any other; it comes and then it goes, like water through your fingers. You may feel a temporary spike in happiness when something wonderful happens, like landing your dream job or falling in love, but before long the feeling will subside and you will return to your baseline. Soon you’ll start chasing the next thing that you hope will make you happy. And then the next.
Contentment is more than a mood state; it’s a mindset you can cultivate. It encompasses happy feelings, but also appreciation, gratitude, satisfaction, and peace. While happiness always wants more, contentment takes pleasure in what is. If contentment had a mantra it would be this: All is well in my world and I am so grateful to be exactly where I am.
This article is about how you can take greater joy in your life exactly the way it is, while still growing, evolving, and yes, even striving for more. I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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For ambitious people who care about personal growth, contentment can feel like a dirty word. It’s the emotional opposite of what we think of as motivation, which depends on wanting things to be different than they are.
When we’re motivated, we’re not comfortable. We’re hungry. Often we’re totally miserable, which is when most of us do our best growth work. Our job isn’t good enough. Our relationship isn’t good enough. We’re not good enough. And “not good enough” is such a painful feeling that we’re willing to work to avoid it. Even though everything in our monkey brains is wired to seek the most gratification while expending the least energy, we will actually put down the remote, change out of our sweatpants, and engage in the laborious process of gradual improvement to avoid feeling inadequate.
None of this is fun, but it’s where most of us find our motivation. And aren’t we shattering that system when we embrace contentment? If you’re content with your job, why build new skills to get ahead at work? If you’re content with your relationship, why work on communication problems, or attachment issues, or speaking each other’s love languages? Why change anything?
While it can feel like contentment and motivation are opposites, they actually support each other. Recognizing that you don’t have to give up the desire to improve can be an important step in cultivating contentment (especially for anyone with a problem with perfectionism).
How to Be Content
Cultivating contentment is not about settling. It’s about leaning into the path of personal growth and taking satisfaction in the process of building something, rather than expecting the ultimate fruits of your labors to finally make you feel happy or “good enough” in a deep or lasting way.
It’s trite, but true: Contentment is about the journey, not the destination. It’s about appreciating all the stuff that happens in between where you are now and where you want to go.
Here are some tools to help you along the way:
- Take an Honest Inventory of Your Life.
Where are you now? Where did you come from? What did you do to get here? Where would you like to go next?
You can ask yourself questions like this about all the domains of your life — your finances, your relationships, career, home, hobbies, and more. Journal about your answers, and don’t just focus on the things you’d like to be different. Take notice of what’s already working and what you’ve been able to build for yourself. It can be easy to breeze past our accomplishments and immediately begin focusing on the next goal without taking stock of how fantastic we are. Always remember where you’ve come from, and all the steps you took to get where you are.
Take some time to put your current reality in the context of your past and your desired future. You’ll feel gratitude for yourself and for the life you’ve already created.
- Explore Your Goals & Opportunities for Growth
Identify the things about your life that you’d like to change. Maybe you’ve told yourself that, once this is different or that is different, then you’ll feel happy. Try making this shift instead: I could find satisfaction in the process of working toward this goal, but it won’t really change how I feel long-term.
Once you’ve identified your goals, think about the “why” behind them. These are your values. For example, maybe you want to make a career change because you value having more time to spend with your family. Or because you value financial freedom. Or reaching your highest potential on your chosen career path. Different people will attach different values to the same goals. Finding your “why” will help you find meaning in the process of growth and change.
If you realize you have a goal that doesn’t seem to have a deeper value attached, that may be a sign that it’s not a great goal for you to strive for. It may be a product of what you believe you should be or want, rather than your true self or your heart’s desire. Learning that would be a great outcome of this process.
- Get Insight into Your Mindset
The next step is gaining some insight into your mindset. This is important because, no matter how excellent your life is, you can sabotage your happiness if your mindset isn’t helpful to you.
Therapy and life coaching are great tools for exploring your mindset and uncovering negative thinking patterns (and if the root of your negative thinking patterns is a problem like depression, it’s super important you seek out help from a qualified therapist).
Journaling can also be a helpful exercise. If you have a tendency to focus on the negative and discount the positive, that will affect how you feel. This tendency is very common and can happen at a very subconscious level; that’s why journaling or working with an outside professional are important for noticing your patterns over time.
Another mindset that can be self-defeating is the unrealistic expectation that when XYZ changes, then you’ll feel happy. In reality, when whatever you achieve comes to pass, you will not feel very different than you do now — at least not for long. You may experience a “peak moment” of excitement and joy, but it will pass and you will return to your baseline.
Your new mantra is this: My circumstances have very little impact on my overall internal mood state. If I want to change my mood state, I need to focus on my mood state, not on my circumstances.
Personal Growth and Contentment
You can and should take joy and satisfaction in achieving your goals. But that’s not the key to a sustainable, long-term happiness, the kind that will buoy you up throughout life. The path to true happiness — contentment with your life, just the way it is — is all the stuff in between. It’s experiencing your own limitations and surpassing them, laughing at yourself, watching yourself improve, and meeting people who are also engaged in the journey. Productive, goal-driven activity is the path to contentment, but not the destination.
I hope this episode of the podcast gave you some new ideas for ways to begin cultivating greater contentment, feeling more at peace with your current reality, and taking more enjoyment in the process of making your life even better. This work can be deep, and often the best way to learn these skills is through a trusted relationship with a compassionate, knowledgeable professional who can help you gain insight into your mindset and achieve a more balanced perspective. If you’re interested in growing in this area, we invite you to schedule a free consultation meeting with one of our therapists or coaches.
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Music in this episode is by Almanac with their song “The Waters of March” (a cover of Águas de março by Antônio Carlos Jobim). You can support Almanac and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://almanacofficial.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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