People often talk about how contentment and happiness are different, often to make the point that contentment, not happiness, should be our goal.* I.e., you can feel a calm contentment, a spiritual quality, without needing the excitement of happiness or feeling deficient if happiness isn’t your overriding emotion. I certainly agree, but my experience is often the opposite in terms of which is easier to achieve: I can achieve happiness without necessarily feeling content, and contentment is often the harder of the two to come by. That is, I can put my finger on all the reasons that I am generally happy, and happy with my life, but somehow still feel restive, uneasy, and grumpy in my day-to-day life.
For me, I would say that discontentment usually takes the form of a vague feeling that there is something missing: that there is something I ought to be doing, something I should have done but haven’t, something that would make my life better but which I don’t have, something that would contribute the rest and peace that I don’t feel. That feeling of lack is what makes me variously frustrated, irritable, restless, bored or depressed.
How to foster contentment is something I’ve had to learn lately. Since getting married, I have really been happy. Yes, very happy. However, just because of the nature of this phase of our lives – which is a curious combination of stable but impermanent features – I’ve often felt nebulously unrestful and discontent. It was as if there were something just beyond the horizons of my normal life that I should be grasping, could be grasping, if only…maybe you know the feeling. Well, in this phase I’ve been pondering a few things that have helped me to pursue contentment.
Take care of what I have
For me, boredom and frustration often lead to acquisitiveness. I want to fix a problem by getting something new. I get frustrated with my whole wardrobe (in which it begins to seem that nothing actually fits properly, nothing looks nice anymore, etc.) and want to chuck the whole thing and buy all new clothes. Or I get sick of my mismatched binders and want to buy all new ones of the same size and colour to look beautiful on the shelf. I find myself grumpily browsing the shops instead of doing useful things.
One tactic that has really helped when it comes to material possessions is to shift my focus to taking care of what I have, which often enables me to find new pleasure in the things I already own. For example, one weird day I reorganised my underwear drawer and folded everything, and arranged it so that I could see exactly what I had and it was ordered by colour. Opening that drawer every day gives me delight – and it’s the same clothes in the same drawer! Incidentally, caring for things properly usually makes them last longer as well.
Banish fraudulent ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’
I often find that my moments of discontent occur during free time – like Sunday afternoons – when whatever lies within the horizons of the present time, the present space (our flat), seems lacking. Then the phantom and false ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ propose that my life feels empty because something is missing. These are embodied in statements like:
I should entertain more – especially on free afternoons like this!
We should be living in a house at our age – I should be earning a real income by now! And look at me sitting here doing nothing!
I should cultivate a hobby to fill this spare time.
I’ve already written about the need to get rid of unnecessary ‘oughtness’. In terms of contentment, I find that these ‘ought’ ideas about my life more generally – about what I should be, what I should have achieved (but haven’t) – specifically create a sense of my life’s immediate vicinity being empty. Sometimes I have to think specifically about why I feel discontent, and what ‘oughts’ are fuelling my restlessness, making me feel like ‘where I am’ somehow isn’t good enough. Once I name them, it’s easier to remember that even if there are things I haven’t achieved, there’s nothing that says I ought to jump up right now and do something about it.
Focus on the already accomplished work of Christ
There’s a place, in discontentment, for encouragement to action: if you feel your life is empty, that something’s vitally missing, you should do something about it. However, for me personally, the opposite kind of advice is actually what I need when I feel unrestful. This is probably because I struggle so much with guilt and anxiety – an overactive sense of having to do what I’m unable to do. What comforts and imparts peace is not a reminder to get up and do something to fill the perceived void, but rather a reminder that the vital thing has been done already. The pivotal work of my salvation has been accomplished completely by Christ. I might sit here, on a Sunday afternoon, feeling itchy and guilty about all the unfinished or overdue projects in my life, but the one big project is already finished. I could have a cup of tea and do nothing and God wouldn’t love me less. Phew! Isn’t that a joyful thought?
* I have put a footnote in this post because I feel it is just that important to say that it’s worth re-learning the meaning of the word ‘happy’, which originally has connotations of being the recipient of good fortune (good ‘hap’) and thus of blessedness, rather than a feeling of ecstasy or cheer. I really wish the word ‘happy’ still retained this root in blessedness, instead of describing only a flavourlessly positive emotion.