Whether we acknowledge it or not, we tend to view a happy, contented life as a fundamental right that can easily be acquired without too much thoughtfulness or the experience of discomfort. There’s often an inherent belief that if we live the life that we were raised to believe is “good”, happiness will just sort of magically follow. The reality is that nothing can be further from the truth.
Sustainable contentment, good mental health, and functional relationships don’t happen accidentally. We may think that we put a lot of reflection and intention into what will make us happy, but far too often we are either passive participants in our lives or too focused on trying to fulfill someone else’s expectations of what we should be. When we are chronically dissatisfied, happiness begins to feel like a nebulous state on a far-away horizon that is impossible to reach.
If building a contented life requires thoughtfulness and intention, we need to understand the barriers that exist to developing it. We tend to get stuck in one of three areas:
1) Having no clue what makes us happy or how to incorporate it into our lives
You ask children what makes them happy and they can unequivocally tell you. It’s pretty basic stuff: toys, friends, their family, a trip to Disney. When I ask adults the same question I often hear that they have no idea, and it’s true.
In the adult abyss of responsibilities, kids, and crushing expectations they have completely lost themselves. Sometimes the things that they thought would make them happy (such as financial success), in actuality brings them little contentment or resulted in unintentional negative consequences and unbearable sacrifices.
Conversely, they may know precisely what makes them happy, but they have failed to actualize and prioritize it. Sometimes it’s because we underestimate the power and importance of simple pleasures (such as relaxation, hobbies, etc.), but more often it’s because we suspect that the life we live is not at all congruent with what we truly value, and the prospect of that is absolutely terrifying. That brings us to number two on this list.
2) Unwillingness to go through pain and discomfort
Being uncomfortable sucks, I get it. But it is inherent to personal growth and contentment. Life is a series of choices and problems to be solved, and doing that can be painful and have consequences. Many of these decisions are difficult, and making one choice means that we may have to let go of something else that we also wanted. By definition, if everything is a priority then nothing becomes a priority. There’s no such thing as having it all. If we know what we truly value then we can prioritize the correct things.
I also believe that it’s next to impossible to be content in our lives if our core relationships are dysfunctional and unsatisfying. Countless people walk into my office knowing that their marriage is a massive problem, yet because the consequences of facing that terrifies them they convince themselves that it’s not significantly contributing to the unhappiness that they feel. Denial is a common and powerful tool that serves us poorly.
3) Failure to understand what contentment means
Happiness and contentment aren’t exactly the same thing. I think of happiness as a temporary state usually tied to a particular experience or event. It’s extraordinarily important, but it’s not a constant state of being. Contentment is an undercurrent, a baseline, a belief that our life just feels “right.” It’s finding gratitude and pleasure in small things and learning how to be in the moment. Expectations are reasonable and realistic. Contentment comes from a steadfast belief that we are masters of our own destiny and that we are capable of effectively solving problems.
Thoughtfulness, intention, and the willingness to continually face problems are the foundation of a healthy, functional, and content life. It is built through deliberate acts and an understanding of who we truly are.