“Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” Lao Tzu
Happiness is defined in the dictionary as: a state of well-being and contentment.
But how do you stay happy in a messed up world? You turn on the television and its bad news. From global unrest to environmental disasters to political acrobatics, there is a tidal wave of uncertainty and fear rushing toward us every moment of every day. Maybe you don’t pay attention to the mainstream news. Scrolling through social media will expose you to the same cloud of negative energy. But even if you’re not connected, this negative energy is transposed from the people around you who are. It’s passed around like a virus through our words, actions (or reactions) and attitudes.
Our own lives can often be chaotic. The car breaks down or you lose a job or your boyfriend breaks up with you. Or perhaps you’re facing something even more tumultuous, like a loved one who’s been diagnosed with cancer. Maybe the diagnosis is yours, and your world has been turned upside down.
These bad things happen, and we are left to navigate through the emotional, mental and sometimes physical tremors they leave in their wake.
But in the midst of the turmoil, we see a glimpse of something good. A child’s laughter lifts our heart for a moment and reminds us of simpler, more innocent things. We watch a friend walk down the aisle and we are caught up in the beam of her smile. These moments move us towards happiness, but its only temporary. If we aren’t paying attention, we might miss it, or take the moment for granted. The feeling is fleeting, and after the moment is over we are left to return to the pressure of our lives, with the echo of happiness rippling through our beating hearts, like a faint memory.
Because happiness can be fleeting, we chase it anywhere we think we might find it. In our jobs, in our possessions, in our spouse or loved one. We often attach ourselves to things that bring about temporary relief from the pressure we experience in our lives, and this is how addiction is formed. Alcohol, food, sex…these things become our method of escape and after a time they betray and leave us even more empty because we have elevated their place in our lives to something unhealthy, and we have tied our own self-worth to the roller coaster of emotions these things stimulate.
Go to any bookstore or pick up most of the popular magazines these days and you’ll find lots of self-help material on how to find happiness. People have made their careers on the subject.
But what is the secret of happiness? And if happiness is only temporary, is there something more?
In our quest for happiness, we are really seeking contentment.
Contentment is a resting state of satisfaction that is present even in the midst of chaos, fear and uncertainty. It comes from a deeper place where values-based principles such as faith, trust, love and hope reside. As a matter of fact, contentment is often an effect of these four values.
Happiness will always spring from contentment, but the opposite is not always true. Meaning that content people are more likely to experience a higher level of happiness, whereas people who experience moments of happiness are not necessarily content. I think the reason for this is that people who are content recognize that the sum of their life is more than their individual experiences, and so the weight of those moments is removed, allowing them to be experienced more deeply. Happiness is something enjoyed and shared over a lifetime rather than manufactured or depleted by individual experiences.
Joy is a fruit of contentment.
People often get joy confused with happiness, but if happiness is a sprint, joy is a marathon. Meaning, joy is a lifestyle that is based less on emotion and more in choice, and it resides so intimately in the state of being content. I don’t believe you can experience joy without being content.
True freedom comes from contentment.
People who experience contentment do not find their sense of worth from possessions, people or status. They are not motivated by superficial things that fall outside their set of values. This allows for a deeper sense of satisfaction, for hope is not fixated on temporary pleasure or things. This detachment allows for a stronger appreciation of the things that really matter, like quality relationships and personal growth.
Contentment is what allows people who experience tragedy to not be emotionally devastated.
We’ve seen the stories where someone has lost everything to a hurricane, or has otherwise experienced great personal loss, and yet they can find hope, they can still respond to their circumstances with humility and they will still offer praise from their lips. It’s because there is something more at the core of their lives, and they understand that everything on this earth is temporary, a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.
So how do we find contentment in an uncertain world?
Contentment flows from a set of five values not based on temporary things or outcomes. To find it, we must begin by evaluating our heart.
Take a few moments and consider your answer to these questions: What do you believe about the world we live in? What do you believe about yourself, the people around you, the things in your life? Who do you trust with your life? If you could sustainable joy, would it be worth the effort to keep it?
The Five Tenets of Contentment are faith, trust, love, gratitude and hope. Let’s take a look at each one more closely.
Contentment starts with evaluating our faith.
In a Gallup Poll conducted in 2016, 9 out of 10 Americans claimed they believe in God. That’s roughly 89% of our nation. But when it comes down to the quality of our daily lives, our actions often betray our claims. We fill our houses with things that have little meaning. We barely invest in the faith we claim, outside of maybe attending church once a week. Our relationships are superficial. We respond to our experiences as something that is happening TO us instead of opportunities to learn and to grow, or perhaps consequences of our own choices. We are influenced by a marketing machine that spreads the gospel of consumerism 24-7. We are more politically polarized, more anxious, more uncertain than perhaps ever before.
Content people have a True North, a compass that gives direction to their lives. If we are not investing in our faith, our compass is broken. It’s not trustworthy. We are bounced around by the shifting winds and knocked off course. We must examine our beliefs daily to make certain that our actions are true to our core values.
Study the men and women who have gone before us who are worthy of admiring. People like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Amanda Smith, and Mother Teresa. Read the story of Esther in the bible. How did they respond to tragedy and hardship? What got them through those things? How can we apply those lessons to our own experiences?
The Apostle Paul was often thrown into prison for preaching the gospel. He faced death threats, tyranny from the Roman government and mutiny from his own Jewish people. And yet he wrote so elegantly about contentment in his letter to the Philippine church: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
Paul said the secret to learning contentment was focusing on the one who was greater than he. Faith is a core value that fosters contentment, and focusing on God in every circumstance will allow us to see that there is a greater purpose for our lives than what we are currently experiencing.
Letting go of things.
We are a culture of plastic and gadgets. We stuff our homes with things that we have little use for, and then we have to buy bigger spaces just to store all of that stuff. The things we buy have the power to choke out contentment because we become servants to the very things we think we own.
Contentment doesn’t mean living in poverty, or that you can’t have nice things. But the value we place on those things is different. Emotions and self-worth are not directly tied to our possessions. This is freedom that is worth pursuing.
Learning to live a life detached from possessions comes from trust. I trust that God loves me, and that he will do what he said he will do. My value is found in his love for me, not in the things I possess.
Make people a priority.
Seeking to understand other people is a key to being content. How do we manage our relationships? How we interact with the people in our lives every day often tells much about the condition of our heart. Do we manipulate, or seek to control our conversations? Do we keep people at a distance, afraid to let them in too close? Do we let our emotions get wrapped up in the decisions and attitudes of others?
When living in a state of contentment, relationships are deeper because we truly seek to make others a priority. We listen to others when they speak not in order to react or respond but in order to understand. And in understanding we are able to empathize, and in turn love, more deeply. We are able to see people not as a catalyst to our own emotions or self-worth, but as individuals who were created with purpose and who desire love as much as we do ourselves.
The decisions and attitudes of other people no longer dictate our course. We may still feel pain and anger, and by opening ourselves up to deeper empathy we may experience these feelings even more so. But our worth is not defined by how we feel in the moment, or by someone else’s choices.
Making others a priority also takes the focus off ourselves. We are a selfish culture that has bought into the idea that individualism is greater than community. But I believe that our lives become much richer when we make the needs of others more important a priority than fulfilling our own. And by serving others we find contentment in our own lives.
Practice gratitude daily.
While driving one evening, I caught a glimpse of the sun setting low on the western horizon. We have amazing sunsets here in Iowa, and this particular evening the sun was a pink fluorescent globe that had nestled in between a silhouetted grain elevator and silo, and it had lit up the highway with a tongue of discotheque fire. My three-year old twins were in the backseat making barnyard animal noises and laughing with abandon at the top of their lungs. It was a moment where a very genuine sense of awe washed over me. I knew I was right where I belonged, and I was so thankful that everything I have lived through has brought me to this place.
These moments are so fragile and don’t last for long. But its in these moments that I believe we have the opportunity for self-reflection and gratitude.
Being thankful everyday is something we have to be intentional about. We all can find something to be thankful about in our lives, even in the hardest moments. By practicing gratitude, we are conditioning our brain to think differently about the situation, about the things or people in our lives. And the fruit of being truly grateful is a sense of contentment that will allow these moments, like my disco sunset, to move us in a way that will bring inner creativity and peace like we haven’t experienced before.
Relying on hope.
Hope seems to be something very hard to cling to these days. Its seems may of us have little to look forward to at all.
But hope is at the core of contentment, and it’s what really ties all of the things I’ve mentioned here together. If we do not have hope that our situation can improve, we become discouraged. Hope is powerful. I truly believe I will be reunited with loved ones I have lost, and that hope guides me through the grief of missing them everyday.
Without hope, contentment has little chance to form because we are cast about on the sea of uncertainty. We are once again giving ourselves to our circumstances. When we have hope that there is something greater in store for us, it allows us to see our daily lives through a different perspective.
The way we see the world, and our lives in it, often dictates our ability to be content. And here is where hope is imperative.
Contentment doesn’t come over night.
It must be fostered. It must be learned. It must be practiced everyday. But the pursuit of contentment is worthy of our time and energy.
Stop chasing happiness. Instead, pursue the deeper contentment that will allow for joy, peace and freedom. Pursue faith, trust, love and hope, because these are the tenets of contentment. Happiness will come from these things, and it will be richer than you have ever experienced before.
Its worth the investment, and it will change your life.
– Sean Ealy