February isn’t always the easiest month of the year even at the best of times – and we are definitely not in the best possible times!
This latest phase of the lockdown has sometimes felt really hard (and a bit tedious), but it’s also been a good reminder of one of the things I’ve been working on this year.
And what is this thing? It’s cultivating a greater sense of contentment.
It’s not a resolution per se, but something I wanted to embody more of in 2021.
The power of contentment
Contentment is kind of like the first cousin of gratitude, but with a generous amount of ‘enough-ness’ sprinkled in. There’s also a dash of mindfulness, as contentment involves being more aware of the emotional state of being and having enough!
To me contentment feels like a gentle kind of superpower. The fact that it has such an important role in Buddhist teachings is also an indicator of just how powerful it can be.
It’s particularly important at the moment as being isolated at home can make the perils of comparison-itis even easier to fall into. This is the enemy of feeling content.
Sometimes just getting through the minutiae of the day feels like a big achievement. But there have been so many times when I feel like I haven’t been learning, doing and being enough – especially when I look at what some other people seemed (and I emphasise the seemed here too) to have achieved over the last year.
And that’s when I need to check myself.
This kind of thinking is not helpful and it’s kind of like mind doomscrolling.
And this is exactly why I chose boosting contentment levels as my key focus area for this year.
What is contentment?
Contentment is a sense of satisfaction with what you already have.
It’s not the same as happiness, but is definitely a contributing factor in feeling happier.
It’s the opposite of constantly striving and in some instances can also be the opposite of rampant consumerism.
This doesn’t mean that by fostering my contentment I don’t want to grow, learn, develop, and, yes, improve. And it doesn’t mean that any of us should feel content with wrongs being done in the world or with huge issues like climate change! But I do also want to feel satisfied with what I have and am now too.
And why is contentment important?
I think Socrates summed it up well:
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
If we don’t have a sense of contentment any gains or growth will never feel enough. It will always be a case of “I’ll feel happy when … [fill in the thing you think you want]”.
As Socrates so succinctly says, if you aren’t content with what you already have or are, that thing you think you want isn’t really going to magically make you content! You’ll always feel not quite enough.
How could you practise being a little more content?
Like most of these things, feeling content doesn’t just happen. It’s a little muscle we need to train and strengthen. Here are just some of the ways you could get yourself into a greater state of contentment…
1. Catch yourself in comparison mode (starting with some mindfulness).
A little mindfulness practice helps you generally be more aware of different emotional states, including when you get into a negative comparison spiral.
You could specifically focus on when you start comparing yourself with other people in a non-constructive way. Don’t get me wrong, the good side of comparison can help inspire us or push us to try new things. But the not so good type can just make us feel a bit crap and even a bit empty.
When it comes to comparison, first of all practise recognising when you are in negative comparison mode and notice how it feels. And just accept that you’re feeling this (and that it’s a totally human reaction).
Next, start to plan ahead how you’d like to respond – and then practise your response.
It might be as simple as saying a phrase like “wow, if they did that I could too”.
Or “that’s not real life (or my life!) so I can’t compare myself”.
Or even “this isn’t helping me” and move on to the next thought or feeling.
It might even be an action – like stopping scrolling through a social media feed or turning up the corners of your mouth into a smile.
Put this plan in place and when you recognise the comparison, have a go at your response until you get to the one that works best for you.
2. Question why you want something new.
In our modern world of influencer marketing and targeted ads, we are bombarded from all sides by marketing encouraging us to buy, buy, buy – especially if someone we follow, admire or respect has the thing we want. But we also all have a responsibility to consume in a more sustainable way. (And you know deep down having more stuff doesn’t genuinely make you happy.)
Sometimes what we already have is enough. I’ve just packed a load of boxes as I’m moving house and I discovered some lovely things that I’d forgotten I even had!
When you’re thinking about buying something new, there are some questions to ask…
Is it something that will genuinely benefit you?
Or that you definitely need?
Or that you’ll truly enjoy?
Is it produced in a way that is sustainable and ethical?
Or is doing good by supporting a small business or cause?
If it’s not one of these things maybe it’s not something you genuinely need…
3. Try a little gratitude.
I’ve written about gratitude before, but that’s because it’s a really helpful practice to cultivate for MANY reasons.
If you feel your contentment levels dipping, one very simple exercise is to think of 3 things you feel grateful for (i.e. things you already have in your life). And try to make one of these about yourself.
It might be that you’re grateful for having strong legs to carry you around in the world. Or lovely central heating to keep you cosy in the winter. Or a good friend who always has a kind word when you’re feeling rough.
Gratitude and contentment go hand in hand, and practising gratitude will help your contentment levels blossom.
Want to read or listen to a little more on the power of contentment?
Here are some extra contentment resources…
What If You Pursued Contentment Rather Than Happiness? by Daniel Cordaro – Greater Good Magazine
Contentment Is Your Choice by Doyeon Park – Huffpost
Having More Doesn’t Always Make Us Happier – Happier with Gretchen Ruben Podcast
You Can Change – The Happiness Lab with Dr Laurie Santos (podcast)