It’s one thing to be recovering from a particularly upsetting life event or to be clinically depressed. It is quite another thing to exist in a constant and meandering state of dissatisfaction. Happiness can sometimes seem like a sugar hit — it ends with a crash. If you feel this way, rest assured that you are not alone.
Many people think of happiness as a self-defined outcome, produced by a complicated algorithm that might include everything from “I checked off today’s to-do list,” to “I have two children and own a house by age 40.” In an individual’s personal recipe for happiness, any condition left unsatisfied can result in what feels like a half-baked cake — a state that is far from happy, and sometimes quite miserable.
Even if you are not in the depths of despair, you may be able to identify that "something is missing" feeling. If so, then read on: there is a way to think yourself to contentment.
We derive our sense of self as much from our failures as from our successes. Whatever your story, it’s wise to become aware of how you define yourself. Clinging to an identity based on how well you cope with what’s tough in life can keep you from improving your circumstances and mood. Likewise, an identity that is about success can crumble when there is an unanticipated setback. Neither confer stability in the happiness stakes.
Beyond and behind who we think we are, and what we think we want, is the self we are attached to, and that self is usually tied into a moral statement about ourselves. We like to think we are fundamentally good, that we act in a way that is expected of us (by society, by our family). Too often, though, we would “rather be right, than be happy,” to quote the Course in Miracles.
Contentment requires shifting our sense of self to something more intrinsic. It touches the void beyond society’s or our expectations; it is about detaching from the ego and connecting to what I refer to as one’s “essential identity.”
In any case, an identity that guarantees contentment cannot just hang on life goals or achievements. Here are three truths about contentment:
1. Contentment rests on loving one’s essential self.
The greatest pitfall I see in my clients, and reflected back to me everywhere in "society," is tying in happiness to achievement. If we define ourselves by our goals and potential, we are choosing to make ourselves vulnerable to failure, constantly. It’s like telling a child, “You’re only great because you scored the winning goal at soccer,” rather than, "You’re great because you are YOU!” As adults, the most common outcome of aligning our sense of self to life goals is the "mid-life crisis," characterized by thoughts like this: I haven’t achieved all I thought I would in life, so who am I?
We have to shift the paradigm: contentment is about radical self-compassion, acceptance for you as you are. At the Zen end of the spectrum, it’s wonderful and spiritual to connect with oneself as merely consciousness. Scaling it up, you might see yourself as a soul on a human journey, which is about recognizing the frailties of embodied experience, and doing one’s best.
2. Aligning with your essential self is what contentment is really about.
The essential self is the you who has qualities which exist in and of themselves, not qualities which are in service of a specific goal. The essential self is creative, or a really good friend; it is not a university degree in science, a clever business plan, winning the school bake off, or anything else to do with achievement or external validation. It is, I hope, the you that your family members, friends and your partner love!
If you can find those qualities that describe your essential self, spend a moment contemplating them. In this space of identifying and embracing your essential qualities, feel the energy there. Tell yourself, “I am ---,” and let your heart be full. Remind yourself of this feeling the next time you slip from contentment.
3. True contentment overcomes setbacks.
Naturally, when life hits you with loss, trauma, or sudden difficulties, it’s natural to react by feeling unhappy, and sometimes, even deep in despair. It is human nature to need some time to recover. Being content does not mean being impervious to pain or sadness, it’s about an underlying constancy.
Contentment has no expectations. It just is. If we can re-think our entire ego identity away from a state of striving, and accept ourselves and our lives completely, then we do far more than release the stress of constant dissatisfaction. We also develop the tools to find our way back to balance when life doesn’t go as planned.
I like to imagine myself on a cliff edge, at the end of my life, alone with my essential self, freed from expectation and judgment. It is all I take with me, after all. And accepting that is my understanding of contentment.