One of the biggest struggles I’ve had with my life throughout my twenties and thirties was with this idea that I had to be happy. If I didn’t feel happy, then I was really missing out on life, and that sentiment would often make me feel sad. It would drive me to try to seek some nebulous sense of happiness.
Over time, though, I’ve come to realize that genuine happiness is a nebulous and rare thing. It’s something that you can grab onto for a little while, but it will always fade. Eventually, you come back to kind of a “default state,” and I’ve come to realize that the best moves you can make in life are the ones where you can maximize that “default state” rather than constantly shooting for happiness.
In other words, most of my journey in the last five years has been to find a state of genuine contentment in my life, not happiness. I view contentment as a state where I am generally pleased – and not displeased – with the state of my life and the ground is fertile for bursts of happiness and bursts of sadness are rare. I am not seeking a state of constant gratification or joy, but simply contentment.
(Please note here that I’m not talking about clinical depression or other mental health challenges, but the day-to-day struggles that many people have with seeking happiness and contentment. Mental health challenges are serious and far outside the realm of what I am discussing here, and if you find that you’re struggling with finding any non-negative feelings in life, you should speak to a mental health professional immediately.)
Here are a few of the things I’ve discovered over the years on my own journey to find happiness and how I began to realize that contentment is a much better goal.
First of all, happiness is extremely fleeting. I certainly don’t persist in a state of true happiness for long periods, nor does anyone else I know. Sure, I experience happiness fairly often, but that feeling goes away pretty quickly even at the best moments. I fall back to a default state.
Why not strive to be happy all of the time? The truth is that when something special happens, I want to have an elevated feeling to go along with it. If you strive to maintain a special feeling all of the time, soon, nothing feels special.
More than that, when you buy happiness, it becomes more and more and more fleeting. It might feel wonderful to go buy something you’ve been wanting for a while and you feel a burst of happiness when you do it, but when you go back to that well again, it’s not quite as joyful as before, and the joy becomes less and less and less until the purchase becomes meaningless.
The default state – which I call contentment – is an overall sense that things are good, but isn’t strongly joyful in and of itself. I don’t feel constant happiness, but I do have a sense that things are in a good place in my life. I have a life that is full of things that may naturally bring about happiness, but it’s not forced. It’s just there, like fertile ground. The natural course of my life spreads seeds onto that fertile ground which may blossom into happiness, and by making it fertile, happiness happens fairly often on its own.
In the end, a content life is much like tending to a garden. You’re making the topsoil as rich as possible. You’re removing rocks and debris – the bad things in your life – and leaving only rich soil that’s full of positive possibility. When you do that, happiness happens naturally – you don’t have to buy things to force it. You already have things in your life that bring positive feelings without having to buy things and your life is primed to have great things grow in it.
Does contentment mean life is perfect and wonderful? Absolutely not. It simply means that you’ve put in effort to make your life as good as possible with what you have. You’ve put in effort to make the soil of your life as rich as possible. You’ve removed a lot of rocks and debris as well. Your life is as primed as possible for good things to grow in it.
Steps to Building a Content Life
So, what exactly makes up a “content” life? A content life is one where you recognize a lot of positive options at your disposal while also not being exposed to significant stresses. In other words, when you take action to minimize or eliminate things that might add to your stress and distraction and discomfort, you’re making for a more content life, and when you take action to improve the life options available to you, you’re also making for a more content life.
There are a lot of different strategies that one might employ to build a content life, but many of them vary from person to person. What each person really wants out of life differs quite a lot. However, I’ll suggest the following as being strategies that will work for most people.
Note that a lot of these strategies either revolve around or touch upon finances. Why is that? Personal finance can create a lot of stress in a person’s life, taking us away from contentment. It can also help enrich the soil and increase the options available to us. Both of those things are a major source of contentment. I would go so far as to say that making sensible personal finance moves is the most important thing you can do to build lasting contentment.
Here are several strategies that you can use to improve your contentment with life.
Build an emergency fund.
An emergency fund is simply a pool of money in a bank account that you can tap in the event of an emergency to help you deal with that emergency. Having an emergency fund quickly eases a lot of stress that people feel about potential unexpected events. For example, with an emergency fund, the stress of a car breakdown melts from a mountain into a molehill.
How? Simply go to your bank and ask them to start moving a small amount each week automatically into your savings account and don’t touch that money until there’s an emergency. If your bank won’t do this, sign up for an online savings account at Ally Bank or some other established online bank and set up the automatic transfer there. Leave that money alone and only tap it when you really need it.
Pay off your worst debts quickly and avoid acquiring more debts.
Having debts hanging over your head creates a level of stress that seeps through your life, making it harder to feel much contentment about anything. Getting rid of the worst of your debts will not only alleviate that, but it’ll drastically help your monthly cash flow.
How? The key here is to cut back on your spending. Put your non-essential spending – meaning everything that isn’t bills or gas or food from the grocery store – on a tight budget. I recommend withdrawing a pool of cash each month for all of those expenses. Use that pool for everything – a cup of coffee from Starbucks, meals eaten out, that item you saw at the sporting goods store, and so on. Once you do that, and stick to that, you’ll find it much easier to handle your bills, and the only spending you’ll really lose is the least essential stuff, the stuff that’s just completely forgettable.
Establish a healthy career with lots of options if things get rocky.
No matter what your job is, you can take a lot of steps to improve your options going forward. You can open yourself up to raises, to promotions, and to new jobs.
How? Treat your downtime at your job as a way to “invest” in future jobs and pay raises. When you don’t have an immediate task, use that time to build strong relationships with coworkers and with other people in your field, to take on tasks that need to be done even if you haven’t been told to do them, to learn new things, to ask questions. Prepare yourself for the things you’ll be called on to do if you have a better job than the one you have now and build the connections you’ll need to get there. Even if nothing comes of it, you will have drastically improved your job security at your current job, easing at least one significant degree of life stress.
Build lots of strong positive relationships with the people in your life; care for them without strings attached.
Having lots of positive relationships lifts you up and provides a strong and fertile foundation for your social life and for your mental well-being. One of the challenges, though, is that relationships often become burdened with expectation. Cultivate relationships without expectation and just see where they go. Don’t expect that everyone will be perfect and reliable, but give of yourself anyway. You’ll find that if you don’t expect anything in return from your relationships, you’re always pleasantly surprised.
How? Ask questions of people and listen to their responses; don’t just use the conversation as an opportunity to say what you’re thinking. Go to lots of social events and rather than feeling awkward, ask questions of people and value their opinion. They will appreciate it. Offer your help when it’s needed in terms of action, not just words. Don’t expect things in return, and be gracious and thankful when people help you. You’ll build a lot of great relationships naturally by doing this.
Improve your physical health through exercise and better eating.
Improving your diet and your physical shape will directly improve how you feel on a daily basis. You don’t have to become vegan or become an athlete to do this, either. Just make little changes, apply them consistently, and stick with them.
How? For food, I like Michael Pollan’s guidance: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In other words, avoid processed and prepackaged food when possible, eat only until you’re not hungry and not until you’re stuffed, and make fruits and vegetables the majority of your diet. Pretty easy. As for exercise, just go for a walk each day or go on a bike ride each day. Any steps you take beyond these are great, but these basic steps exceed what many people do.
Improve your mental health through adequate sleep and meditation/prayer.
Insufficient sleep has large negative mental and physical health consequences. Getting adequate sleep is an enormous boon for one’s health, both mental and physical. Meditation (of which focused prayer is one particular type) is similarly beneficial for improving mood and increasing the effortless tolerance of pain. Both lead directly to a mindset that’s more open to contentment, whereas lack of sleep and focus tend to be fertile ground for discontentment.
How? Go to bed a little earlier in the evening. Try to strive to wake up most mornings naturally, before your alarm. Spend a few minutes each day quietly focusing on nothing more than your breathing or on nothing more than a single positive message in your mind, bringing your mind gently back to that focus point every time it wanders. Both practices will do wonders for your everyday mental state.
Find fulfilling hobbies that don’t require continual purchases for enjoyment.
There are many, many hobbies out there that have very little ongoing cost and provide a great deal of personal joy. Reading books. Going on walks and hikes. Physical fitness. Participating in a sport. Gardening. Volunteering. The key is to find hobbies that don’t require continuous purchases and that focus on actually doing things rather than acquiring things or spending money on experiences.
How? Try different things. Think of the things you’ve had an interest in at various points in your life, then dabble in the ones that don’t require a lot of money and see if they click with you. Read a book. Go on a hike. Check out Meetup and see if anything interesting is happening around you. Check out VolunteerMatch and look for some volunteer opportunities near you. The key here is to do things that you enjoy that don’t involve spending money.
When things worry you, take action to minimize the potential harm that worry could cause.
All of us have stresses in our lives – things that bring us worry when we’re going to sleep at night. When those worries become intense, they damage our sense of contentment with life and bring us down. Thus, it makes sense to try to take action to alleviate some of our biggest worries.
How? Spend some time assessing the things that bother you the most, come up with a plan of action for the biggest worries, and then move forward on that plan. Taking the time to actually address the worries in your life with real action eliminates a great deal of stress and adds greatly to life’s contentment.
Stop blaming others for your problems.
In the end, the only thing you can control is yourself. You can’t control what others do. The difference between a good outcome and a bad outcome, in the end, is you. People are going to behave badly sometimes no matter what you do. Assigning blame for all of life’s problems to others simply allows you to continue to make poor choices. Stop blaming others. Start looking at what you could do better.
How? Spend some time journaling each day, reflecting a bit on what you can do to improve yourself and the things you are grateful for. Once a day, make a simple list of five things in the world that you’re grateful for. Then, think of one thing you did in the last twenty four hours that you could have done better and write about it. What did you mess up? How could you have done it better? At the same time, think of one thing you did in the last twenty four hours that was really good. How can you replicate that kind of thing in the future? The thinking that goes into those writings will go a long way toward improving your appreciation of the world and cutting down on the blame game.
Downsize your possessions a little.
This might seem like a surprising suggestion, but it helps in several ways. For starters, it gets rid of the sense that you have a lot of stuff that you should be using but aren’t. Many of the items in your closet also have monetary value, which can help with the financial aspects. It also makes it easier to both clean and maintain things, as well as to potentially move.
How? Go through your closets and your shelves. Anything that you haven’t used in a year and won’t realistically use in the very near future should be sold off. Use the proceeds to build an emergency fund and knock down some debts, thus taking care of another piece of this puzzle.
Final Thoughts on Finding Contentment
Happiness is a wonderful thing to find in life. It’s something that many of us seek. The truth, however, is that happiness is fleeting. It doesn’t last, and the harder you try to preserve those moments of happiness, the quicker they slip through your fingers. Efforts to recreate happy moments usually fall flat as well.
A much better approach is to shoot for contentment – a sense that life is good on the whole, but not a constant state of happiness. What you’ll find in a content life is that it is fertile ground for happy moments.
Contentment comes from finding space in your life for things that can potentially bring you joy and from eliminating stresses in your life, too. It comes from putting yourself and your relationships into the best possible state. It also comes from having a strong grip on the basics of your finances. The best part is that many of those factors are interrelated – significant improvements in one area often lead to improvements in other areas, and those collectively lead to a more contented life.
The beauty of contentment is that your day to day life feels … good. It’s not a constant state of bliss and happiness, but it’s a state where you feel good and you have good relationships in your life. It’s in that state that happiness arises automatically and with surprising frequency, like beautiful flowers blooming in a fertile field.
All you have to do is make the soil fertile and plant the seeds, and that’s what the strategies above are all about. They’re all centered around making the soil of your life fertile by making yourself healthy and putting yourself in a good financial state and doing some real self-reflection, then planting seeds in that life by building great relationships and finding hobbies and passions that don’t drain your wallet. Together, they build a wonderful life. A content life.
Not everyone’s life is going to look the same. Some people may find contentment living alone in a small apartment in the city. Others may find it in a big house in the country with a big family. Still others may find it by being devoted to a career, or through a particular passion. What these people all have in common is that they put in the effort to make their mind and body clear, they get their finances under control, and they find things that bring them joy without draining their mind and body and finances. These tools can help you find that place, whatever it might be.