I’ve been thinking a lot about contentedness recently. There are myriad slogans and catch-phrases that address it, such as ‘money can’t buy happiness’, ‘seize the day’, ‘first-world problems’, ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’, etc., but it can’t really be explained away that easily. Contentedness is a lot more nuanced that that.
Economically, I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum at various points in my life. Not flat-broke or uber-rich but certainly lower (lower, lower) middle class and probably what most would consider upper class, although I don’t like applying that label to myself, so let’s call it ‘pretty well-off’. Either way, I’ve been equally miserable and equally joyous at times in those different economic states. When I think back to my life, I don’t really remember my overall emotional state related to my economic state as much as I do some memorable moments during those times. Example – I met my future wife when I barely had a dime to my name. That was great. But conversely I also suffered great embarrassment when I once received a notification that my bank account was overdrawn by 16 cents and I had to scrounge up 17 cents in pennies and nickels from a desk drawer to get my account back in the black.
On the other end of that spectrum, becoming a home owner certainly qualifies as a highlight of being well-off. But the Yang to that Yin are the deep frustrations I’ve felt at the very job that puts me into that economic category.
I’ve found myself complaining no matter how much money I have, which brings me to one of my favorite phrases: First World Problems. Whenever I find myself complaining about the short life of my iPhone battery, I just mumble that golden phrase someone certainly invented to shame us for even thinking about complaining. There are kids starving in Yemen, Mike. Good God man, get some perspective.
These phrases may help us feel thankful and content for a short time but we always return to the norm. Things irritate us no matter how good we have it.
‘Money can’t buy happiness’ is one of the most famous phrases of all. It’s proven true immediately by simply observing rich people. Do they have any problems? Absolutely. In fact many of their problems are exactly the same as those faced by everyone else: poor health, bad relationships, feelings of incompetence, poor career choices, loneliness, etc. All the cash in the world won’t help you if you are genetically sickly. A fat wallet is meaningless if you can’t relate to other people. A large bank account will not raise your low self-esteem.
Do rich people have fewer problems? Biggie Smalls says ‘no’ emphatically in ‘Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.’ Maybe not more problems, B.I.G., but you definitely had different problems than a lot of us; very few of us will ever get shot at multiple times in our lives…the last time fatally. Yikes.
Do poor people have more problems? Probably, at least in some aspects of life. Health care would be one of them. Access to good education certainly another. In one of those ‘you-have-no-right-to-complain’ moments in my life I observed a family living in a landfill in a shack made out of garbage outside Guatemala City – and they were smiling and laughing. No one would trade places with them but they were certainly not miserable, at least not in that moment.
How about people who turn their hobby into their full-time job? Paid to sky-dive, paid to eat, paid to see movies, paid to travel the world. The people who magically figure out some way to turn the things they’d happily do for free into steady paychecks as opposed to those of us slogging away at a computer inside a gray cubicle housed in some run-down building in a strip-mall alongside the interstate, working interminably at these meaningless tasks that add no value to our lives other than feeding our bank accounts? Those people are happier than us, right? Maybe, but I believe the moment you have to do something to earn that paycheck then it becomes work. I have a friend who complained forever that corporate america sucked and he just wanted to work for a brewery. He eventually landed the brewing job and guess what? Do I even have to say? Yeah, you guessed it – he’s as miserable as ever…his complaints are just different.
Hell, I even got bored and frustrated on my trip around-the-world. Let me describe my life for those 2.5 years: no work, just exploring the different town, region, or city I woke up in that day. Ate whenever, never set an alarm clock, went wherever I felt like going. Drank at 10 in the morning if wanted to. No concerns about money because I had socked it away for several years. Basically every day was Saturday in some exotic location. It was amazing, but of course I still had problems: Thieves. Loneliness. Sickness (mostly food related). Boredom. Lack of a goal. Feeling unfulfilled.
Yep, lots of problems, and that was my dream trip!
When I think back on it though I rarely remember the bad parts; I remember rather the great moments. Seeing the Great Wall of China for the first time from the train window. Walking down the street to Red Square in Moscow, knowing that when I turned to the left I’d be staring at the iconic, colorful St. Peter’s Basilica. Mountain biking down a mountain in Ecuador. Seeing the ocean floor while descending down a rope-line on my first scuba diving expedition in Thailand. Climbing up to the Sun Gate and gazing down at the ruins of Machu Picchu as the clouds cleared from the jungle in Peru. Even the bad times, the bad moments, have become some of my funniest stories to tell around the campfire, several of which will eventually appear in this blog.
So as I mull over my lifelong pursuit of contentedness I reflect on all these different points in my life and the circumstances within them, trying to decipher when I was most content. I suppose I have never been truly content. I am beginning to think I never will.
What does it mean to be content anyway? Does that mean you never make a change again? That you stay in the same place, with the same people, and do the same things for the rest of your life? You just find this happy balance and stay there? Well, that couldn’t work because the people, places, and things will change around you – they will force change upon you. Some of your relationships will end, your health will decline, your neighborhood will change, your job will get worse, unexpected expenses will pop up. Change gonna come, Sam Cooke, whether you like it or not.
And besides, that lack of movement, the disinterest in pursuing change, of simply remaining as you are stinks of laziness to me. Ambition is a good thing, right? Improvement? That’s something we admire in people usually. If you are discontent, make a change.
Given all of this, contentedness seems impossible…can it even happen?
Perhaps it can for some people. Really, really adaptable people maybe. People who just plod along and roll with the punches, unaffected by the changing landscape around them. Maybe simple people too, those with few worries or desires. Gandhi seemed pretty content, no?
But how about for the rest of us? I don’t think most of us are really, really adaptable or enlightened Gods of Hinduism – how do we find contentedness?
It seems to me that the answer is to change our expectations. We think – or at least I do – of contentedness as a long-term state, but I really think it’s more fleeting than that. I think contentedness exists only in the moments of our lives. Reading back over what I’ve written, I find that word popping up over and over: moments.
Maybe because for those of us who aren’t so happy-go-lucky, who may get bothered by trivial things, who continually seek out what’s next, true contentedness is a fallacy. You find that perfect parking spot and then return to the car to find a door ding. You eat a great meal only to later fall ill to food poisoning. You find the perfect house and then the horrible neighbor moves in. Each of those situations contains a moment: when you pulled into the parking spot, when you were eating the delicious meal, when you walked through the front door for the first time, a the moment when you were so content…but then it was gone, like waking from a blissful dream. Poof. Ugh, not this shit again.
An entire day of being content is so rare. Almost impossible. Seize the day! yelled Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society. Make the most of it. Good advice, but maybe that’s too much for us. A day is too big usually. Maybe we need to focus a bit more on the building blocks of those great days, those tiny slices of time where the experience is just what you want and perfect and amazing and just right and “oh why can’t I bottle this?!”
How many great days have you had? OK, OK, now how many great moments? Ahh, there we go…you’ve had a whole lot of those. Maybe if you stitched them all together they’d be enough for a lifetime…a lifetime of contentedness. Maybe…maybe. I’m going to work on that and get back to you…I will take those smaller snippets of time in my day, the moments, and I’ll seek the joy in there, bask in the glow of them, find the satisfaction in them…
I will Seize The Moment.