The Lost Virtue of Contentment

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Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash

Contentment is an old-fashioned virtue, isn’t it? There’s something undeniably passé and quaint about it; it’s status is so. . . plain. Maybe it’s a vaguely charming notion, we’ll think, but isn’t it kind of disturbingly motionless? Unexciting and empty?

We’ll go further: perhaps contentment is a fitting philosophy for those on the tail end of life, repetitively rocking on their porches for hours on end, staring at the summer sun, say. But for those of us in the grip of young adulthood or middle-age — those life stages of set-up and tireless maintenance, respectively, contentment is often dismissed with a flick of supposed irrelevance.

Few are those that preach contentment as something worth aiming at. After all, the halls of America are blazoned with hails to ambition. Ambition is worshiped and with it, the restless, entrepreneurial spirit endemic of our nation.

Make no mistake: ambition has its time and place. Our lives would grow slack absent this royally-spurring hunger (so too would our standard of living and sky-high innovation thresholds deteriorate).

Ambition is a magnificent quality in its own right, but by choosing to deify it too exclusively we risk contracting burnout, spending our lives lusting after the future and ignoring the present, and living in a state of perpetual anxiety. (Just to name a few of the possible ills, that is.)

Everyone knows it these days: anxiety is majorly on the loose! There’s lots of reasons for an influx of anxious people but might it be possible for one of them to be a cultural deficiency in the experience of contentment itself? If so, it’s not that anyone’s really to blame.

Contentment is a choice; an actively honed practice. It doesn’t grow on trees, naturally releasing into the air the way oxygen has been doing for millennia. That said, so too does contentment’s wallflower-status in our society have its own origin story.

Take, for instance, the ubiquitousness of self-branding efforts in the 21st century. With freelance work on the rise, the burgeoning gig economy, the increasing fluidity and turnover in the job market and the social media scaffolding that so many of our identities rest upon, the self has become commodified — its morphology into something like a “mobile business” a testament to these shifts. We are always to innovate, to say “yes”, to scour ourselves for inadequacies like a Catholic on their way to confession.

Is it any surprise, then, that people are fatigued by these demands and the pressure to keep up? However, there’s more to the “commodification of the self” than merely feeling boiled-down to a vehicle for 24/7 money-making and self-promotion. Reflect on the self-development craze, an entire industry dedicated to keeping individuals enterally chasing the utopia of the better “you”.

There is an excellent passage in Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive that brilliantly sums up this deceivingly obligatory rat-race:

The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

A quick caveat: this is not reasonable cause to pick an issue with capitalism, of which much good has advanced from. (Most things have a couple negative byproducts to their name and having negative byproducts does not make the system by which they were produced an unfit one.)

That said, pay close attention to this particular sentence of Matt’s: “To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act.”

What Contentment Is

In a world that advocates constant innovation-of-self, (and the suspension of satisfaction with the present, for that matter) contentment looks like the rebellious act of standing still for once.

We are seduced by the romanticism of the modern authenticity-quest and by the language of “finding yourself” that, as individuals in western society, we cannot escape being steeped in.

But is “finding yourself” really the objective here? Are we not just busily changing ourselves, under the impression that our current state is perpetually lacking and thus, necessary to constantly replace? (This brings to mind flinging off different outfits from the closet, garments and hangers flying, wailing with desperation, “ but I have nothing to wear!” ) For that matter, do we even really know what “finding ourselves” really means? (Sometimes, I am doubtful.)

The point is, contentment is an escape from all this. It’s the permission to embrace your current self, in all its humbled, unpolished glory. Sometimes it even means lowering your expectations — and what a galling statement for me just to have written on the page (!) Hear me out, though.

Contentment is satiation. You know how your whole life you’re running around, vying for that spot on the top of the ferris wheel where you’ve (in your imagination, that is) reached the apex of goal-fulfillment and can now breathe a sigh of relief, sit back in the balmy August air and drink in the sunset?

Well, be careful with nurturing those kinds of fantasies. Because while it’s certainly no novel claim, such a future hope might be little but a wispy illusion for the simple fact that if you cannot practice contentment now there’s no indication that it’ll alight like a dove in your hands when you’ve finally succeed in checking all the boxes of your life-goals.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s no surprise that contentment has a grandmotherly kind-of air to it and as such, it doesn’t typically top our lists of life philosophies.

It has no particular thrill to it and it gives off a stagnant energy. But it truly is the antidote to the anxiety teeming in the sphere of modern life. Ambition may be a virtue, but in equal measure, contentment is as well. Put another way, standing still can be just as beneficial as forging onwards.

Contentment has much to offer: stability for one. It anchors by way of appreciation, by way of recognition of the things around us that work for us, that are successful in furnishing meaning and beauty in our lives.

When contentment becomes a practice, it serves a noble duty by reminding ourselves of the intrinsic value of who we are now as opposed to ambition’s counterpart who we want to be. On the quest to find and endlessly forge our identities, we run the risk of losing that ineffable kinship we have with ourselves in the scuffle.

The lesson being, when the scales are weighted so far towards the ends of who I want to be (towards the future as opposed to the present) you have no center of gravity; you are tethered only by that hazy, far-out highway mirage of your perceived potential (which, in so many cases, is a gleaming, unforgiving ideal of perfection).

Contentment is entwined around a paradox. There’s something undeniably conservative about it — its steady, calm energy, its ethos of gratitude, its penchant for standing still in lieu of restless, anxious motion. But confusingly, because of its counterculture dynamic relative to the environment of today, it’s also radical. (Recall: “staying calm is a revolutionary act”.)

To be okay with the self that you currently are and to count your blessings, your fulfillments, and your small joys is to forfeit the restless striving towards self-innovation and the pervasive sense of inadequacy that accompanies it that so many believe is their lot.

Notice how “being content” hinges on restricting your field of vision to the plane of your immediate life and by consequence, reduces the anxious shopping-around in the mall of other-people’s-selves to achieve a modicum of adequacy. Simply put, when you are content, you belong to yourself more.

What we get from contentment

Contentment is stability’s cousin. Its repetitive reminder of okay-ness is soothing: like the old rocking chair, seesawing back and forth at a patient, steady pace.

What else is it? A wash of relief. And in addition to that, the conduit for a new sense of kinship with your “present-self” (truly abandoned in droves these days).

So too does being content interestingly grant a person greater access to self-control and self-mastery, to the feeling of gripping the reins of life tighter in one’s hands. This may seem a peculiar outcome for contentment to usher in but recall that one of the gifts it bestows is stability.

Add to that peace of mind which can do wonders for clearing the cobwebs in your mental space which, from there, cannot help but cause you to straighten your shoulders and hold yourself more proudly.

Understand: contentment is no rollercoaster thrill; it’s more like a warm bath. It can be healing, comforting, rejuvenating — all of that. And it’s not a new discipline, but it’s become a scarce one in a society that is increasingly programmed to diminish its merits at the expense of feeding the ambition, innovation, (and anxiety!) machines.

Remember, ambition does tremendous good (and keeps the world from going slack) but psychology is seldom helped by imbalance. Sometimes we go so long without taking a break, we need, so badly, to learn to sit still.

To be content is to possess a (rare) satisfaction with the present, to sink into satiation and appreciation.

Contentment is the revolutionary act of staying calm. It is, dare I say, the new counterculture?

Written by

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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