Contentment As A Goal For One’s Life, (or How Much Is Enough?)



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    3-13

ABSTRACT:  Contentment (or enduring satisfaction) is little sought by people in modern societies, but it can be a key determinant of quality of life.  Ways of seeking and increasing contentment are described.  The human tendency to excess is explored, particularly the accumulation of excess wealth and goods and the seeking of unending pleasure.  Ways of approaching the question of “how much is enough?” are explored.  Alternative mind sets are proposed.

KEY WORDS:  satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, wealth, pleasure, quality of life

In modern societies people increasingly focus their lives on quick satisfaction of unending wants and needs, but few people pursue or aspire to contentment, perhaps because it seems anachronistic and out of sync with modern life, which is filled with stimuli that compete for our attention, many offering immediate pleasure.  Pleasure seems so available, through entertainment, drugs, consumer goods, and internet-based activities, that we believe that satisfaction is our right and is easy to achieve, so that something as old-fashioned as contentment seems quite unnecessary, yet most of us still relate with some yearning to images of contentment—the old men in rocking chairs swapping stories on the porch of a home or country store, the cleaning person who is truly happy with what she has, or the serene expression of a saint or guru who is living a life based on the longer-term and hard-won pleasures of the spirit. 

Most people do not question or go beyond their endless round of desire and brief satisfaction, since this cycle is natural to human beings, and since they see everyone around them engaged in it, too.  Most people have no direct experience with contentment or with anyone who is basically content and do not know what is needed in order to feel contentment.  Most people imagine relatively enduring contentment to be like feeling constantly satisfied—i.e., feeling satisfaction with every new stimulation and accomplishment, but this would require the almost impossible scenario of everything going right in one’s life, and this would not be contentment, anyway, since satisfaction occurs only after goal-related effort and soon fades, while contentment is a state of lack of pressing desire which can be prolonged or even lasting.  Webster’s Ninth New World Dictionary defines “contentment” as the state of feeling or manifesting satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation, but that satisfaction is brief (until the next desire arises), while a state of contentment can be more enduring.  Although one’s contentment will inevitably be challenged by desires and by life’s “problems,” and although one may certainly at times be content only with certain elements of one’s life and not with one’s life in general, I suggest that a general and enduring sense of contentment is possible and might be chosen over other lifestyle alternatives.

 It will be helpful to clearly differentiate contentment from satisfaction and fulfillment, with which it is often confused.  Satisfaction is felt when a need is sufficiently met or a desire sufficiently fulfilled (according to our own standards and expectations) or when we judge that we have done what we needed to do to reach a goal (a small-step goal or a final goal), and we are pleased with our efforts and/or with the outcome.  We feel satisfied if we access and eat food that pleases us.  We may feel satisfied with being fed, regardless of the food, if our goal was to get the preparer of the food to feed us.  We are satisfied with our jobs when we have gotten a job in which our work results in reaching the goals we had for being in a job, in terms of pay, interactions with others, working environment, quality of management, or other goals.  We can be satisfied with things larger than just immediate needs, if we think about and assess ourselves and our situation, but all satisfactions fade, until the next time we address a need or desire.

 Note that feeling satisfied with bodily wants/needs is relatively automatic, while feeling satisfied regarding a voluntary activity (like one’s batting average) involves a judgment of our assessment of ourselves against some standard that we have for ourselves.  There can be interaction between these two mechanisms, as when we attempt to feel more satisfied with somewhat less food intake in order to lose weight.  We can use our knowledge (I really have had enough food for health maintenance) and our intention (I want to lose weight) to motivate actions that can allow us to feel satisfied as well as helping us lose weight (pause after swallowing every bite before taking the next bite).

 Satisfaction or dissatisfaction can be attached to every new need, desire, or effort, but it is short-lived (having our hunger satisfied, being satisfied with a memo we are writing or a painting we are doing).  One can be satisfied with one’s life as it is right now (i.e., satisfied with one’s need state and with one’s efforts and results in life up to this point) but still be engaged in strongly motivated efforts to have more or to be more, whereas contentment is an overarching mental state that can be relatively enduring, defined by having no pressing desires or needs that demand one’s focus and must be satisfied.


Fulfillment is felt when we have reached a goal by using aspects of our “real selves” (abilities, capacities, knowledge, talents) honestly and sincerely (as contrasted with pretending to be other than we are or to believe or feel other than we actually believe or feel).  We may feel fulfilled when we see our children thriving and consider our contributions to their growth.  We may feel fulfilled when we reflect on a career in which we have given to others using meaningful aspects of ourselves in creating results that are consistent with our values.  We would not feel fulfilled, on the other hand, if we obtained a reward by pretending to have done something that we in fact did not do (even if we appreciated and enjoyed the reward).

Contentment, on the other hand, is a positive emotional state that is based in feeling that we have enough or that we are sufficient, according to our own standards or expectations.  Since the contented person has enough (of material goods) or “is” enough (views self as acceptable, adequate, etc.), he has no pressing need to have more or to be more.  It is basically an emotional state of rest, in which there is no business that must be finished and no inner doubts or conflicts that must be resolved.  Contentment is probably never constant, because changes around us will inevitably occur that will require focus and effort toward regaining a status or condition that we like, but contentment could be the usual emotional state for some or even many people.  We can be dissatisfied with some elements of life (being hungry, for example) and still be contented in general (and this is perhaps the most that we can realistically hope for in this life).  (It might appear that religious mystics or ascetics go further toward contentment than anyone else, but if they still feel driven to reach higher spiritual states, then perhaps they are not content!)

It is also useful to differentiate contentment from serenity.  Contentment is a pleasant, settled feeling that occurs when we have no pressing needs or discontents.  Serenity is a state in which one “flows” through life untroubled, and the feeling associated with it is of smooth flow while having a broad view of things from above the fray, like both being a part of and overlooking a flowing river.  The untroubled state is similar in both contentment and serenity.

A feeling of well-being may be present along with contentment but probably only if one has all or most of one’s needs satisfied (according to one’s standard for being satisfied).  A person may be content even if some significant needs and desires are not satisfied or met.

Satisfaction is felt after goal-related effort that has succeeded (or goal-related effort that one is satisfied with), but it does not last long, whereas contentment can be a relatively enduring state if cultivated.  We feel fulfillment when we are pleased with having used our true selves to accomplish valued goals, while contentment, again, is not based in achievement but in having no pressing needs to accomplish or change.  Serenity is untroubled flow with an untroubled view from above the small disturbances of life.  Well-being is a positive feeling arising to varying degrees from one’s life being as it “should be” or as one wants it to be.


The purpose of this essay is to bring to our attention the value and possibility of greater satisfaction than we now experience (by adjusting our expectations and standards) and the value and possibility of greater contentment in our lives (by recalibrating our sense of what is important in life, taking charge of “how much is enough?” for ourselves, and coming to enjoy more meaningful pleasures).  A discussion of satisfaction and contentment is needed to balance our society’s growing focus on constant stimulation and pleasure.  Since we are now more efficient at taking care of our basic needs, our economy depends significantly on the production and sale of “fun” and entertainment to provide enough jobs for people.  Businesses compete for our money through advertising that aims to stimulate and catch our attention.  Our greater rootlessness and anonymity in society promote “pretend relationships,” such as those on the internet, which seem simpler but are ultimately less satisfying than their real counterparts.  Led on by visions of wonderful goods and services, we compete even more with each other for jobs and the money to obtain these wonderful things and thereby end up working more hours, with more stress, than in the past (and having less time with people who really matter to us).  These societal trends all push us in the direction of more activity and more stimulation, which makes our satisfactions even more fleeting and eliminates contentment as a serious goal.

It is the premise of this essay that many people would be happier, more satisfied, and more content  with a life that was more “real,” more self-expressive (creative), more self-aware, and more self-managed, but we no longer have societal structures that teach and represent the value of these ways of living.  Schools teach some good principles of getting along with others and in society but do not seriously promote honesty and self-awareness.  Churches are weak and dare not pressure their members to really live the principles of their faiths every day of the week.  Psychotherapists are under pressure from insurance entities to treat only symptoms and do it as fast as possible.  It seems that we are on our own as individuals to somehow find what is truly satisfying and fulfilling and pursue this path despite the enticements of our economic system.  It also seems that we are handicapped in this effort in some important ways by our own innate, evolved behavioral tendencies—i.e., that we have difficulty knowing what is best for us and difficulty doing what is best for us.

It can be argued, of course, that doing what comes naturally is really what is best for us (or, nihilistically, that ultimately it doesn’t matter how we live).  These views would claim that taking all available immediate pleasures rather than choosing our pleasures with a view to making a more satisfying, contented, and fulfilling overall life is just fine, or even better.  How do we know that we’ll live more than five more years?  Why not enjoy the foods that taste best, regardless of the fact that they will probably make our overall health worse?  Human beings could live this way and survive as a species, but this essay urges you to consider that you  may be more satisfied, contented, and fulfilled if you plan and manage your life to have (1) deeper and more lasting relationships (which require more honesty, empathy, and face-to-face contact), (2) more creative self-expression–using your gifts and skills in relationships, work, and the arts, and (3) the greater financial stability and security that comes with more saving and less consumption.  (It is much more difficult to be contented if one is struggling to stay ahead of the bill collectors!)  To live in this way implies being more content and less pushed by outside forces.  It requires making more thoughtful choices of how we use our time and money and requires including our future status more in these decisions than we do now.  It requires more investment in building longer-term capacities in ourselves (capacities for deeper relationships, skills in self-expression, capacities for more meaningful vocations), rather than always doing what feels good right now. 

To those who live for consumption, doing what is best for us might suggest frustration of some desires, but actually it means dealing with desires in a different way within ourselves.  Fundamentally to live in this way calls on us to choose what is best for us rather than what feels good at the moment.  This does not mean never doing what feels good, but it means, rather, choosing to do what is best for us if that is not what feels good at the moment.  Choosing what is best for ourselves is more likely to lead to contentment than is choosing what feels good right now.  Being more content means that we have to take a stand on “how much is enough,” since maximum consumption leads us inevitably to more superficial and ultimately less fulfilling lives, and in recent years to taking more financial risks which have resulted in greater losses (when bubbles burst and homes, jobs, and retirement plans are lost).  Contentment is the natural outcome of being in control of our lives and doing what is truly best for us.

Human beings are built to seek pleasure rather than pain, but constant pleasure is not possible (since we accommodate to any steady state of sensation or emotion) and is not adaptive or “good for us,” since it pushes aside reality considerations of what is best for us.  What is best for us often involves foregoing current pleasure for the sake of our safety, for the sake of not harming others, and for the sake of greater pleasures in the future.

Psychologically, we can understand the wish for as much pleasure as possible (always wanting more) as being due to (1) a conditioned fear that we have of the unknown and unknowable future (so take your pleasures now, since you may not have any in the future), (2) a childish wish to have Christmas every day (which modern consumer economies try to make us believe is actually possible), (3) continuing to feel, as children do, that concrete pleasures are the only worthwhile pleasures (rather than maturing to see the bigger picture and the importance of future pleasures and the satisfaction of living out our values in our daily choices and lives), and (4) competing with other children to have things (and therefore not feel left out) and to have more and nicer things than they do (and thereby to prove our value and superiority).  Modern consumer economies want us to be just mature enough to go to our jobs regularly but not mature enough to see the dead end of simply consuming.

Happiness does not consist solely of gaining pleasures and feeling fleeting satisfactions, but it also comes from contentment (not being driven) and fulfillment (seeing the fruits of adaptive and beneficial uses of our skills and abilities).  Children (and many adults) imagine that Christmas is the happiest day of the year, because of the gifts, but people who reach the point in life where they have met significant challenges and still made a good life (in terms of relationships and successfully meeting major responsibilities) and see the valuable gifts that they have given to others (raising children successfully, establishing a food bank) are happier still.  It is easier to reach the end of the work day having earned one’s daily wage and then concentrate on immediate pleasures (going to the bar, video games, a good meal) than it is to invest in oneself and one’s life so that at the end of the day one can reflect on one’s meaningful accomplishments and the fulfillment that they bring.  This does not mean giving up good meals or video games, but it means using part of one’s time and resources investing in oneself and in one’s future.


Contentment has the following defining elements and necessary conditions:  a positive emotional state; equilibrium (a relatively steady state emotionally); feeling that what we have is “enough” (and not being troubled by desires); relative lack of concern about personal shame, guilt, or inadequacy; and standards and expectations of self that have been met and are therefore not a source of discontent or dissatisfaction.  The degree of contentment of a person depends on the degree of presence of these conditions. 

A Positive Emotional State

Being content implies a positive emotional state—that one’s subjective experience of life overall is positive (and that life is therefore to some extent enjoyable), rather than negative, which would mean that one’s overall subjective experience of life was negative.  Presumably if one’s overall subjective state were negative, one would be discontented with that and would seek to make it overall positive.  Of course, the attitudes involved in being contented might make a life that was overall negative into one that was overall positive to that individual.


As noted above, contentment is an emotional state of rest, in which there is no business that must be finished and no inner doubts or conflicts that must be resolved.  There are no desires or motives strong enough to push us “off center” into an emotional state where striving and dissatisfaction dominate.  A person who is generally content can live, most of the time at least, in this balanced, centered state of emotional equilibrium, even though external concerns will arise that will have to be handled, hopefully in a manner that allows the preservation of one’s equilibrium.  This will usually require viewing external concerns and stresses as passing and tolerable, so that even though they may call for action, this action can be taken without significant stress, and one’s equilibrium can be preserved.  (This untroubled emotional equilibrium is also the key defining factor of serenity.)  Subjectively, we experience this equilibrium as calm, like looking out on an untroubled sea and feeling untroubled oneself.

External threats, both environmental threats and those created by others, are viewed by the contented person as ultimately not catastrophic and not worth being greatly disturbed about, even if one chooses to act to do something about them.  In order to do this, you must have developed confidence in your ability to cope adequately with these threats.  You must believe that you can overcome most environmental dangers, and you must be able to accept threats from others as inevitable and respond in ways that calmly give the greatest chance of successful resolution.  This confidence goes hand in hand with the confident acceptance of the fact that, even if you cannot take care of a threat (and even if you should lose your life as a result), you will have done the best you can and will have done well according to your own internal standards and expectations (which is all any of us can ever do).  Ultimately, one is satisfied with and content with doing one’s best, regardless of the outcome.

Feeling That What We Have Is “Enough” (and Not Being Troubled by Desires)

Contentment does not necessitate a low standard of living but simply asks that we not be particularly concerned about it, beyond having “enough.”  People who are basically content can still see the necessity of working for their bread and shelter and can do this work with equanimity and without undue concern.  Society-wide contentment would imply somewhat less consumer spending overall and also a lack of long-term ambition for status, so people who were content would not do extra striving in order to continue to “rise” in the socioeconomic hierarchy (even though they might still seek to fill positions that they considered important for the general welfare, in order to contribute).  People who were content would have no need harm others by trying to best or defeat them in order to “get ahead.”

The question of what is “enough” is clearly central to being content.  Most human beings take what others around them have or do to be their standard for what is “enough,” without really considering the question for themselves.  To be content in a culture of consumption, you must decide for yourself how you want your life to be balanced between getting and consuming things and other aspects of life.  Those in modern society who are content would allot less time to getting more things and consuming them and more time to other pleasures (such as face-to-face interactions with others, play that does not require expensive equipment, long-term goals, fulfillment, serenity, etc.).  If you think about it, you will find that a good deal of what you have is not essential for having a good life.  Having five good friends might be just as satisfying as having ten; standard TV’s might be just as good as flat-screens for entertainment; you can have a happy life in a 1500 square foot house; adolescents don’t need to ride to the prom in a limousine; a lesser car will get you to your destination, too; and infants don’t really need designer jeans or diapers (as long as you are content not to compete for status with the neighbors).  (Note that this is not a call to go back in time but rather a call to use more of our time and resources on things that matter.)

People who are content are also less concerned about desires and needs that might arise but that are not or cannot be fulfilled or met.  People who are content will certainly have needs, but as long as essential needs are met, they view others as optional—i.e., if they can be met, fine, but if they cannot, it is not a source of concern or dissatisfaction.  People who are content might say that it would be nice to have a particular object or a particular entertainment, but they would not say that they “have to have it,” and they would not be upset if their neighbors had it but they did not.  Also, if fulfilling a desire or meeting a non-essential need would require losing the basic feeling of contentment, they might well choose to stay content.  The person who is content is able to know that others have more without being upset because he knows that his chosen level of acquisition and consumption matches his values, and this knowledge is reinforcing and comforting.

Contentment may conjure up an image of mainly just sitting or doing nothing, but this is simply a false contrast in our minds with our current activity level.  A person can be content and still enjoy doing his job and can still look forward to and enjoy a fishing trip or a friendly competition or writing a book.  A person can be content and still work long hours serving others.  The definitional key is that one is not “driven” to do these things or to prove something but does them for their inherent pleasures and rewards, not for what they mean or represent about oneself as a person.  Subjectively, feeling that what one has is enough is experienced as a calming and momentarily satisfying feeling, as one realizes, happily, that there is no need to be concerned or anxious about filling a lack or heading off a problem, and that it is perfectly OK to relax and enjoy what is.

Making a choice for contentment while those around us are consuming as much as possible is difficult, since we have evolved as a species to conform and to act like those around us act, and if we act differently or demonstrate different values from those around us, they look on us as odd or even as a threat (since their choice to consume is usually not really a choice—they are simply doing what everyone around them is doing).  Also, if we choose contentment over consumption, we must find the results to actually be worthwhile, and while we are “trying out” contentment, it may take some time to fully realize and understand it, which may require some effort to persist in seeking contentment initially while still being tempted by immediate pleasures and seeing others having those pleasures.  Usually, though, the choice to seek greater contentment is made after one has become jaded and discontented with consumption and its immediate pleasures.

We should consider whether our society could continue to produce everything that we consider important if a large number of people were to choose to be more content and less acquisitive.  For example, it is possible that with less economic activity in general, some productive activities, such as medical research, might be curtailed, and the total amount of medical care available might be lessened, since there might not be enough money to maintain them at their current levels.  Then if you believe that maximum medical research is essential for a good life, the responsible thing to do is not to choose contentment.  Serious consideration, however, might lead you to conclude that continuing to extend your life by a few months and a few months more is not very important, and that you could be quite satisfied with the current level of medical care, without further improvements, which would mean a slightly smaller life span expectation and somewhat fewer treatments for some diseases than might be the case with continued advancements.  It is relatively easy to accept with equanimity the current level of medical care together with slower future progress in research, since what we have currently always seems better than what we had in the past!

The above is a truly critical point regarding human beings and “progress.”  We may have perfectly good reasons for wanting ever better medical care, and we will always be motivated to find ways to have less pain, but we do not have to have them in order to be happy, satisfied, content, or fulfilled.  We can have “good” lives without more “progress.”  It is the false assumption that every wish or desire “should” be met that keeps us from considering the alternative.  In this, as in many other cases, our immediate emotions do not necessarily give us complete guidance for how to have the best life.

Relative Lack of Concern About Personal Shame, Guilt, or Inadequacy

In order to be content, it is important not to have self-criticism or other inner discontents disturbing one’s equanimity.  The major feelings that must be managed are shame, guilt, poor self-esteem, and inadequacy. 

You must grow emotionally and cognitively to the point where (1) you are little affected by others’ efforts to shame you, because you evaluate for yourself whether to be ashamed, rather than feeling shamed relatively automatically or simply because someone else is trying to shame you, and (2) you manage your behavior so that you do not do things that you will be ashamed of.

You must grow emotionally and cognitively to the point where (1) you manage your behavior in such a way that you do not do things that you will feel guilty about, and (2) you manage your unanticipated guilt by working through the process of forgiving yourself (which includes having the integrity to not act in that guilt-producing way again).  (See the chapter on acceptance in my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  12 Steps to Positive Self-Esteem (available through the internet) for steps in forgiving yourself.)

Feeling inadequate, feeling bad about being who you are, and feeling that you are not good enough are all aspects of negative self-esteem and will undermine contentment.  Positive self-esteem (feeling positively about yourself most of the time, without excessive inner conflict and self-criticism) makes your daily experience of living so much better, by giving you a positive outlook in general and by releasing all of your energies for use in goal-attainment.  The methods of cultivating self-esteem are simple (see the book above), but they require considerable inner work on self-acceptance, self-respect, and self-love, as well as on taking control of your standards and expectations for yourself and determining them for yourself.

Standards and Expectations of Self Have Been Met and Are Therefore Not a Source of Discontent or Dissatisfaction

Perhaps the greatest enemy of contentment (and of self-esteem as well) is holding standards and expectations for yourself that you are not meeting because they are impossible or inappropriate standards or expectations (such as parents expecting a child of moderate intellectual capacity to be a high academic achiever).  Usually these are standards and expectations that others (usually parents) have held for you and that you have taken on as obligations.  Clearly, if they are impossible or inappropriate for you, then you will always be troubled by self-doubt and poor self-esteem, and this will make overall contentment almost impossible.  The answer to this is to examine each of your expectations and standards for yourself and decide whether you really agree with it or whether you disagree with it and do not wish to hold yourself to it any longer, given who you are and given who initially tried to hold you to this standard or expectation.  Rejecting inappropriate standards can be frightening, since it may mean disappointing whoever set up the standard in the first place, but freeing yourself from standards and expectations that will keep you internally distressed for the rest of your life will be well worth it.

A person who has appropriate and humane standards and expectations of self can be content, because she is succeeding in life, according to the only standards that matter (her own) and because she is not troubled by feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and painful self-esteem.

A question worth considering is whether a person could be failing or unable to accomplish things important to her and still be content.  This would be possible if the failures and lack of achievement were with regard to things that the person knew in advance were likely to be impossible but that were felt to be worth working at anyway.  The expectation for these efforts would be doing one’s best, regardless of outcome.  An example might be working for desired social change, which an individual is unlikely to be able to effect alone but which each of us can work toward, believing that ultimately it can be achieved by working together.


The greatest physical or bodily impediments to finding contentment are (1) our innate need for mental stimulation, (2) our lack of organismic limits on gratifications, and (3) our desire to avoid pain.  If desired, these barriers can be transcended through self-awareness and a long-term view of what is best for us.

Need for Stimulation

Human beings are innately curious and readily bored, so that we are constantly seeking stimulation that is interesting or pleasurable.  We are quite ready to pay for such stimulation, as is evident in our high smart phone bills and our TV and cable bills.  We naturally prefer stimulation that is easy to obtain to that which takes more effort, and most people focus on external stimulation rather than on what they can provide for themselves from their inner lives.

We can harness our “need” for stimulation to help in the quest for contentment by choosing stimulation that will move us toward being able to be content.  We can avoid stimulation that would tend to disturb our equilibrium, such as the drugs (PCP, oxycontin, hallucinogens) or constant media images of violence or hatred.  We can avoid stimulation that will lead to shame or guilt through violating our own values (pornography?, forbidden pleasures?).  We can avoid overstimulation by paying better attention to our satiation and physical state, and we can avoid stimulation that tends to induce the desire for more of that stimulation (a personal fascination with a particular stimulation that we know from experience that we tend to overdo—candy?, pornography?).  We can choose instead stimulation in music, reading, movies, our physical location, our activities, etc., that is healthy and satisfying, that is interesting yet calming, and that will leave us feeling more complete and better about ourselves and our lives.  We can develop an interest in our own thinking and perceptions and use that to understand ourselves better and to be able to provide some of our own interesting and useful stimulation from inside ourselves.

Internal Limits

Our bodies have some satiation limits on inputs and gratifications.  We can “get full” of food, and we can eventually get so tired of a pleasure that we stop stimulating ourselves with it (for a while), but we have no internal limits on seeking symbolic gratifications of self-esteem and security needs, so it is difficult for us to recognize when we have “enough.”  No matter how big our military is, a bigger military could make us feel just a bit more secure.  No matter how much money we have, even if it is more than we could spend in a lifetime, more money makes us feel even better, momentarily, when we examine our bottom line.  No matter how many “friends” we have on Facebook, having more Facebook friends makes us feel just a bit more special.  This lack of limits was not a problem as long as we could not actually get or achieve more than we need, and this has been the situation of most human beings throughout history.  Now, however, we can often get more and have more than we need and more than we can even use, so we become wasteful and over-stimulated.  Our considerable ability to fulfill desires works against being content because we don’t have internal limits and don’t know how to control ourselves.  It tempts us to believe that life is only about fulfilling desires, which leads ultimately to disillusionment and burn-out.

We are designed to have desires and to seek their fulfillment, but our abilities to achieve have outstripped our abilities to plan well and to guide our decisions reasonably.  This means that we must use our cognitive abilities to place appropriate limits on our actions in the world.  Some of the questions that we might ask ourselves regarding our latest desire are—

·       Why do I want this?

·       Do I really need this?

·       How exactly would this make my life better overall?

·       What is it that I really want?

·       By getting this, am I trying to make myself feel better about myself or more secure (or to fulfill some other emotional need)?

·       Could I achieve this in some other way?

·       In seeking this, am I using the world’s resources in ways that threaten my future or are unfair to others or to future generations?

·       Is pursuing this consistent or inconsistent with what I view as my values?

Answering these questions honestly can provide us with the insight that having more can in some instances make us more unhappy, and it can help us to realize that we may be better off sometimes by not getting more.  This realization makes contentment possible.


Human beings naturally avoid pain, but pain is an essential part of the human adaptation to our surrounding reality, since it provides essential information about harm and danger.  (This information is not available in any other way, as evidenced by the significant problems of persons who have no pain sensations.)  As we have developed and sanitized our living environment and daily resources (living in clean boxes, potable water at our fingertips, food in packages, enclosures in various forms for transportation, readily available medical care for every boo-boo and pills for every emotional state), we have come to believe that every pain should be quickly eliminated and, even beyond that, that life “should” cause no pain.  Since this is an impossible goal, striving for that goal automatically implies discontent and suggests that people with this goal will never be content.

A more adaptive stance would view pain as a necessary part of life, albeit one not to be purposely sought out!  Acceptance of pain (meaning allowing it to be, whether we like it or not) allows us to use its information without fretting over it unnecessarily or trying to eliminate an essential part of our bodys’ functioning.  Acceptance of pain has been found in research to diminish the amount of pain experienced.  Accepting pain as a normal part of life shifts our focus from feeling that pain is itself somehow “wrong” to being properly thankful when we are relatively pain-free.


The desire to have no pain in one’s life has been discussed above, but there are many other psychological issues that can keep us in a discontented state, some of which are described below.  The brevity of the suggestions here for overcoming these barriers and moving toward contentment is not intended to suggest that overcoming them is easy, but the suggestions are provided to identify a path to follow.

Fear of Lack

If one has experienced serious deprivation of essentials in one’s life or been raised in a situation where fear of not having essentials was omnipresent, one may have a conditioned reflex to always be working to get more and stockpile things so that the feared lack never occurs.  The fear is always there in the background, so one can never be content.  If one is now in a more stable and resource-rich situation, then this fear can be moderated and tamed by (1) acknowledging one’s current state (which is inconsistent with one’s constant fear), (2) gaining confidence in the likelihood of never experiencing the feared lack, by reflecting frequently and honestly about one’s current resources and abilities, and (3) using one’s reality perceptions and compassion for one’s deprived self to soothe and assure oneself of one’s relative safety currently.

Memory of Favoritism to Others

If one grew up in a family in which other siblings were consistently favored over oneself, then the pain of this love differential and the anger about it (toward the favored siblings and toward the parents) can be a cause of ongoing discontent.  This discontent can be assuaged by (1) attending to one’s true value and worth and building healthy self-esteem, (2) giving up further competition with the favored siblings for love and symbols of love (and feeling good enough about oneself that one can be OK without fulfilling this longing to “win”), (3) forgiving the favored siblings and parents (not admitting that what happened was OK but giving up trying to change others and taking a positive attitude toward what one can now get from those siblings and parents in healthy relationships, and (4) seeking more adult and healthy relationships with those siblings and parents, if desired.  Sometimes adult communications can lead to an emotional resolution of one’s feelings, but sometimes an accord is not possible, and one can only move on.

Becoming the Favorite Oneself

Sometimes people seek to reverse favoritism by seeking to become the favorite themselves.  This may be with parents or with bosses or other later stand-ins for parents.  Succeeding in displacing a rival and becoming the favorite oneself feels to some extent satisfying, but that satisfaction ebbs when you find that you must then work continuously to remain the favorite, and displacing someone else usually leads to resentment and more conflict.  We are usually better off transcending the problem by redefining what is important to us and using our energies to achieve more worthwhile goals.  After all, does it really make you a better person or a more valuable person to be the favorite?

Status Competition

Human groups “naturally” form status hierarchies, which function to determine the share of available resources each person is to receive.  That most human beings accept their assigned status in the hierarchy and accept that those above them will get more than they do makes it possible to distribute resources without a great amount of conflict and violence about who gets what.  If a person is dissatisfied with his status position and strives to rise in status, he may be chronically discontented.  It is possible to work toward rising in status without feeling internal pressure to do so, so it is possible to be relatively content and still exert effort toward improving one’s situation.  The key is being content with what we have, rather than being dissatisfied most of the time and feeling pressure to do something about that.

One of the things that bothers many people about their status position is that those positions have nothing to do with who they are as persons.   Often one’s status assignment is the result of relatively superficial criteria, such as wealth, beauty, or parentage, and America has provided a place to live that is conceived partly on the notion that people can rise in the hierarchy through their own efforts.  Letting go of unfairness, whether in respect to the status hierarchy or any anything else, requires (1) acceptance of how things are now, (2) a decision about whether to seek change or not, (3) seeking change without the pressure to right a wrong and not to prove anything or get the better of others but rather simply to improve one’s situation.  Others are unlikely to apologize for the unfairness of their being in a better position than you, and competitively getting the better of them simply stimulates and prolongs the struggle.


We often seek to be in a superior position with respect to others, in order to be dominant and to gain all of the material and psychological rewards that we can.  We do this by rising in the status hierarchy, by being better than others at doing things, or by dominating others physically or emotionally.  Unfortunately, there are always others who wish to surpass us, so the competition for superiority is endless, and this endless competition and uncertainty allows little room for contentment.  If one is content, one feels no inner pressure to strive.  We can assuage part of the desire for higher status by coming ourselves to truly believe that those who are of higher status than we are are truly not better people or more worthwhile than we are, even though they may get a bigger share of the pie because of their status.

Desire Itself

Desire that intrudes on a healthy balance in one’s life of work, relationships, contemplation, and creativity is an enemy of contentment.  A contented person, on the other hand, can have desires without being “driven” or “impelled” to achieve them.  The problem, if there is one, is in the excessive focus or motivation behind the desire.  Excessive desire may arise in many areas—status, wealth, sex, love, drugs, a mental state, a particular relationship, etc.  To moderate such an excessive focus, one can pause as often as needed and (1) reflect on the fact that what one has now is probably sufficient for a good life (enough to permit or “justify” contentment), (2) “practice” contentment by imagining that one is content and allowing oneself to experience that feeling, (3) become clear on the meaning or symbolism of the desired object or person (since obtaining the excessively desired object is almost always an indirect way that one is actually trying to gain love, esteem, respect, or self-esteem that one lacks), since knowing this, one can figure out better ways to get what is really wanted, (4) enter a contemplative or meditative state and enjoy its calm (and seek this calm throughout one’s day), and (5) think carefully about what is truly best for one, and focus one’s energies on following that path (which will almost always not include the object of excessive desire).


Envy is by definition wanting something someone else has, and it may be accompanied by jealousy, a negative feeling toward the person who has the desired thing (object, relationships, status, etc.).  If one is obsessed with what is desired, then contentment is not possible.  (One can be content and still want things, but the contented person is not “driven” or “impelled” to obtain them.) 

In our consumer society, envy often arises if we have less than those around us, regardless of whether we really want or need what they have.  This is the result of our imitative nature.  Whatever we see those around us doing, we tend to do as well, and this includes gratification patterns.  If they are having more, then we “feel” that we should be having more, too, even if that “more” is unnecessary, meaningless, or simply foolish consumption.  In order to become disinterested in unnecessary consumption and gratification, it is necessary to have one’s own independent mind and to exercise it in deciding for oneself what is real and what is truly best for oneself.


We all value and seek love, but if we “have to have” it, then we cannot be content.  Most often this occurs when a person will not be satisfied with anything but the love of a particular person, such as a particularly valued lover or one’s mother who has not loved one satisfactorily.  Usually love is available from other people or in other forms, and contentment can be had by accepting those instead of love of the obsessive object.  Exploring the meaning that we are placing on the exceptional, obsessive love object can help us to reduce the pressure to have it.


Sex is wonderful, but if we are driven to have it, then we cannot be content.  Usually, our bodies have an acceptable satisfaction level with regard to sex, so we are not driven to have it unless we are placing psychological meanings on sex that it does not have to have, such as taking sex to mean love, taking sex to represent domination or superiority, or taking sex to represent a rebellion against overly restrictive morals.  Exploring these unnecessary (and incorrect) assignments of meaning can help reduce the pressure to have sex.

To Have No Pain

Since we naturally dislike pain, some people are driven by the desire to eliminate all pain from their lives.  This may be attempted by gaining wealth (so that we are protected from want and have no reason to envy others), gaining superiority, (so that we are not goaded by being looked down on by others), or by gaining control (so that we can force others not to hurt us).  Unfortunately, these means are not perfect, so often people respond by trying to gain even more wealth, superiority, or control.  Also, by avoiding all pain, we make it impossible to have some of life’s most fulfilling experiences, such as an abiding love or having children.  Life inevitably involves pain, and one can be truly content only by accepting that fact and organizing one’s life so as to avoid only unnecessary pain.

To Have All Desires Satisfied Immediately and Fully (and to Avoid All Frustration)

Human life is a repetitive cycle of desire and satisfaction, which can only be avoided through death!  Some people, though, seek to have all desires satisfied immediately and fully, which is impossible given the nature of our human adaptation and the environment that we must deal with.  Those addicted to opiate drugs have the illusion of this immediate and complete satisfaction, as do some sex addicts, but reality always intrudes, and addictions are ultimately more damaging than helpful.  Our brains and bodies are adapted to tolerate partial satisfaction and delayed gratification reasonably well, and one can only be content by accepting that we cannot have all of our desires satisfied immediately or fully.

To Be Omniscient

Some people strive to be to know everything, so that they can avoid all pain and frustration, but we are simply not capable of understanding everything that can affect us (and incapable of doing anything about some of the things that we do understand), so we must be content with doing the best that we can.  In our era, many have the illusion that greater knowledge (i.e., science) can conquer everything (want, pain, death) if we just work at it hard enough, but human beings will always want things, we must have pain in order to learn, and endless life would not be as satisfying as we imagine (or practical, in terms of world population!).  We also have the illusion that our understanding of things is accurate, even though the slow advancement of knowledge historically shows that this is wrong.

To Be Perfect

Many of us imagine that we would have no pain or unsatisfied wants if we were “perfect,” which means to us doing everything right, according to what we have been taught and what we understand about life.  Unfortunately, doing what we have been taught often leads to pain, and our understanding of life is limited, so being perfect is not only impossible for the human organism but does not lead to the desired perfection of life.  Human beings are by definition imperfect (viz., diseases, daily mistakes), and we must be content with doing the best we can.

To Succeed in Everything

Some strive to be successful in everything they do in order to prove that they can cope with anything that happens and therefore that they can avoid pain and frustration.  No matter how successful we are, we still make frequent mistakes, and we are still vulnerable to our errors, as well as to the vagaries and unpredictability of the environment.  The strategy that gives the greatest rewards, all things considered, is to always do the best we can, knowing that there will be errors and failures and accepting them with good grace.

Choosing Immediate Rewards Over Distant and Possibly Greater Rewards

Human beings have a strong tendency to value and to choose immediate rewards over greater rewards that would require waiting and additional work.  This emphasis on gratification leads us to be discontent unless we are currently receiving gratifications, and it deprives us of opportunities to learn within ourselves how to be content while waiting for more distant rewards.  An important strategy that can help us to be content with less while working for more is to seriously consider what is truly best for us in deciding on our activities and the timing of our gratifications.

Avoiding Death

Death is, so far, the ultimate and inevitable end of our current, personal existence, despite the talk about cryogenics and genetic methods of making it possible to live forever.  Most of us in advanced societies insulate ourselves from death as much as possible so that we don’t have to think about it, but some people cannot avoid that awareness and are impelled to incessant action by that awareness, in order to achieve life goals before dying or in order to use busyness to temporarily avoid thinking about death.  Contentment, then, would require accepting the inevitability of death and accepting death as an appropriate end to the life cycle of human beings, as bodies slowly lose various aspects of their functioning.



It is entirely natural for human beings to experience desires and needs and to focus on their satisfaction (or diminution).  Satisfaction is the natural result of successes is “meeting our needs” and fulfilling our desires.  “Advanced societies,” though, have focused entirely on increasing satisfaction only, with little attention to higher level, more complex, more long-term feelings and gratifications, such as contentment and fulfillment.  This is because (1) satisfaction of desires/needs is concrete, simple, and immediate and because (2) large economies must motivate everyone to produce and consume, and it is easier to motivate everyone with satisfaction than it is to motivate everyone with more complex or refined gratifications.

Modern consumer societies require consumption desire on the part of citizens in order to maintain production and exchange of goods.  Now that basic needs are routinely satisfied for persons in advanced societies, business has turned to a focus on selling stimulation and pleasure, in food and drink, entertainment, and the purchase of status.  The lure of such pleasures is sufficient to keep most people consuming (striving for satisfaction), although another result of this is that they probably never feel contented.  The capitalist ethos therefore acts against the achievement of enduring contentment.  By promoting personal gain and focusing on lower-level motives, capitalism has created great wealth and has increased general physical well-being, but the undermining and minimization of contentment is a notable loss for citizens.  If people were asked to choose between enduring contentment and a life of perpetual, recurring desires, some met and some unmet, a sizable proportion of us might well choose contentment (at least if it did not mean a clearly undesirable standard of living).


Our culture, and all other cultures, too, incorporate competition among members as an approved though occasionally troublesome element of human behavior.  Perhaps this is rooted in the fact that we are not born with standards to apply to ourselves for how “well” we are doing, plus the sensitivity that we all had as infants to others getting more attention and resources than we were getting ourselves.  We tend, then to grow up “knowing” how we are doing by comparing ourselves to how and what others are doing, which has no defined standard or continuum for “how much is enough.”  If others all have bigger or nicer houses than we do, then even if our house is perfectly adequate, we will probably feel that we are inferior, that we are not “keeping up,” or that it is somehow unfair.  Competition is employed by parents and by employers to stimulate children and employees to try harder to please and thereby to “act better” and produce more.  (If children know clearly that they are “enough” for their parents and that they are doing well enough in their parents’ view, they have another source of “how much is enough,” in addition to comparing themselves to peers.  It seems likely that children who were secure in their parents’ approval tend to be more content as adults than others.)  Competition is sometimes employed overtly by both genders, to find out who can provide more or “put out” more.

Competition can be fun and can stimulate us to stretch our boundaries and increase our abilities.  Even though we could “compete” with ourselves against measures of whatever we are doing (pushups, running), most people find it to be more “fun” to engage in (and to watch) competitive activities and sports.  The problem with competition, with respect to contentment, is that most people are not satisfied with just competing but continue to try to “win,” and no one can “win” all the time, which leads inevitably, then, to discontent.  Hence, competition is generally a barrier to contentment, unless we can compete simply to enjoy the “fun” of competing.  (As above, if a child is secure in being a “winner” in her parents’ eyes, then competition to “win” over others will be less important to her.)

In order to compete and to be content, we will have to do without one of the sought-after benefits of winning, which is feeling superior or “better than” the loser.  The notion of being “better than” someone else because we can run faster or get higher scores on intelligence tests seems so natural to us that we never question the logic of it.  In fact, no one cares if someone else can run faster than they can or can get more points in a game of tennis, unless it has some clear implication for a better life (like saving oneself from a bear or saving one’s village in a war).  Otherwise, these “wins” have no meaning by themselves, and yet we generally go along with this program by feeling “better than” the loser if we win, and feeling like a loser if we lose.  This is probably a generalization from observing as infants and young children that parents praise doing more and doing better, so that to get praise we feel that we have to do “the best” or at least “better than” our siblings.

Competing yet being content, then, requires that we do not generally take winning seriously and do not feel inferior if we lose (or superior if we win).  Changing this habit of feeling superior or inferior requires considerable thought and diligence, but it is possible.  When you watch your team play a sport, acknowledge that the other team’s players are just as human and just as nice as your players and that they “deserve” to “win” just as much as your team.  Tell yourself that if your team wins, it doesn’t make you a better person and will not change your life for the better.  Keep telling yourself these things, especially when you feel that your team has been treated unfairly!  You and your team do not deserve to win any more than anyone else in the world, winning does not add anything to your value as a person, and gaining imaginary value from winning requires winning again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, which forms a very long road ahead of you.

Values and Philosophy of Life

Another relatively new issue has arisen from the actions of persons whose basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are satisfied or almost always satisfied, which is that they may not manage their needs for activity and stimulation in ways that are good for them.  Within the sleep-wake cycle, human beings have a natural activity level and a desire for almost constant stimulation of some sort.  In our species’ past, up to this point in time, people have had to use most of their energy and attention for survival and meeting basic needs, with a small amount left over for elective activities (hobbies) and entertainment (dancing around the fire, etc.).  Now, however, more time and resources are available for “fun” and entertainment, which has led to our spending more time watching other people do things (movies, TV, concerts, clubs), more time doing imitation living (video games) rather than real life, more spending on equipment for having “fun” (mountain bikes, boats, special clothing for every sport and activity), more use of alcohol and drugs, and, probably, more sex outside of marriage (“idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”).   Addictions are more possible now, since more people have the time and resources to do what they want. 

Clearly we have no effective guidelines built into our psyches or our cultures that seek to aim the use of this excess time and resources in productive or non-harmful directions (helping others, building/creating for the common good, developing our skills).  Traditions that promote freedom have been largely fueled by the desire to be “free from” something (religious coercion, governmental coercion, hunger, poverty, plagues, etc.), but now we are faced with having no values or guidelines that deal with our “freedom to” do whatever we want, and it is clear that human beings do some silly things (America’s funniest home videos, flash mobs), dangerous things (rock climbing, sky diving), or harmful things (drugs, street racing) when they are free to do so.  Many people seek only what is stimulating rather than what is fulfilling.

We have built Western societies on the premise that people will do what is best for themselves if given decision-making power, and now we see that given excess time and resources, they may not do that well at all.  We don’t want to give up our freedom, but we don’t know how to guide or control ourselves, either.  We instinctively fear that exposure to sex can lead to sexual activity that is harmful to societal structures and rules (infidelity, sex among children), but we are drawn to publicly watch other people having sex (movies, etc.).  We want to make money giving people what they most want to eat, but now we find that how much they want to eat and what they most want to eat are damaging their health.  We encourage people to buy (and therefore use) more and more things, and people are thereby willingly diverted from nurturing truly satisfying and fulfilling relationships.  Since pretend or substitute relationships are now available (on-line, phone sex, etc.), we find that a significant number of people prefer these to real people, which again moves them away from truly satisfying and fulfilling relationships.  (Much of this problem is our tendency to value immediate pleasure over greater future pleasure.  Our economic values tell us to grab it while we can, not to build for the future, which is why so many people are not saving for retirement.)

It is the premise of this essay that many people would be happier, more satisfied, more content , and more fulfilled with a life that was more “real,” more self-expressive (creative), more self-aware, and more self-managed, but we no longer have societal structures that teach and represent the value of these ways of living.  The limited contributions of schools, churches, and therapists are not sufficient to provide effective guidance for society.  We are left to somehow individually figure out what is truly satisfying and fulfilling and pursue this path despite the enticements of our economic system and the irreality of the entertainment available to us.

Avoidance of Pain and Death

As noted already, human beings are built to avoid pain in all forms, and advanced societies have developed structures that invite us to do this ever more effectively, through medicines, drugs, stimulation, and temporary gratifications.  We are also more and more insulated from death, as medical care keeps more people alive longer, and someone else (the undertaker, the minister, the grave-digger) handles death that occurs close to us.  No matter how we avoid them, though, pain and death are inevitable parts of being human, and they will all touch us closely at some points.  Life would be more “real” and our societies more humane if we acknowledged them and learned to deal with them through acceptance and placing them appropriately in the bigger picture of our lives.  Only through knowing fully the consequences and implications of something can we deal with it most humanely.

Public Policy Regarding Medical Care

The healthcare dilemma in this country provides a complex illustration of our difficulty being satisfied and our somewhat immature unwillingness to face limits.  It is difficult in our culture for us to acknowledge limits, since one of our self-enhancing beliefs is that we can achieve anything if we will only work at it hard enough.  As healthcare discoveries and innovations (better hospital procedures, new surgeries, new medications, new imaging methods) continue to be developed, the overall cost of healthcare naturally goes up.  We want effective treatment for any health problem that we have, but we don’t want to face the costs of having such a huge panoply of available and expensive treatments.  We complain about these high costs and blame providers, insurance companies, or “the system” for them, while refusing to take responsibility for our desire that someone (the medical system) take away all of our pain and fix all of our bodily problems.

Dissatisfaction with having a condition that is not treated or not treated successfully leads to the “how much is enough” question, since we naturally hope that medical advances will lead to a treatment for our currently untreatable condition, thus maintaining the growth of the medical system and its costs to us.  An alternative would be to be content with the medical care we have even though it doesn’t treat everything successfully.  For cost control, “being content” would mean having enough people feel that there is little need for expensive medical advances (while still expecting small advances in efficiencies and procedures) that the profit from the development of expensive medical advances would decrease and thus depress their development.  The expectation would be to work with what we have to make it as good as it can be but not to add more things to what we have.  Of course, if expensive medical advances were to occur, then even many people who are content with how things are would probably opt to utilize those advances, thus continuing the cost spiral.

This attitude, that things are good enough as they are, is contrary to our culture’s progressive beliefs and self-image, since we are a country of people who came here because they wanted things to be better.  Let us consider, though, the possibility that a person might view life in a way that made medical progress (or at least further progress) relatively unimportant.  If one were to encounter a medical problem in later life and to see that even if this problem were treated successfully, there would simply be more untreatable problems in the future, and if one were content with one’s life already, then that person might opt not to get treatment for the current problem.  This contradicts our culture’s general assumption that life must be extended as long as possible, no matter the cost and no matter the quality of life, so a person who opted against treatment would be going against that cultural assumption.  Human beings are built to strive to survive, but it is possible for us to use our capacities for understanding to conclude that one has had enough life and is content to leave it.  Given the nature of human beings and their current infatuation with science and scientific progress, it is unthinkable that the culture’s assumptions about life or “how much is enough” would change any time soon, but to be content and to live without always striving is possible if one were to choose that path.


It would be insensitive to suggest that a life of contentment is currently desirable for everyone on the planet, even though, from a psychological point of view, this might be true.  Those living in poverty, in cruel dictatorships, or in situations in which their babies are likely to die will “naturally” want a better life (although contentment or partial contentment could still be useful mindsets for them to use to some degree).  For most of us living in “advanced” societies, though, contentment is clearly possible and from both psychological and ecological points of view has much to recommend it.  Greater contentment could lead to more focus on what is “real” and fulfilling in life—deeper relationships, more creativity, more self-awareness, and better self-management,

Greater Consciousness

In general, the greatest tool that we have for moving toward contentment is greater consciousness, which means being more aware of ourselves and our situations in total.  A great deal of our discontent stems from unconsidered assumptions, based either on our lack of full awareness or on our tendency to imitate what others think and do without really considering whether that is the way we choose to be.  If you overeat because your food tastes so good, you can alter this behavior by taking more time between bites (and between servings) to focus on your taste experience and on your stomach’s degree of fullness.  (Try it; it works!)   If you are caught up in consumption competition with your neighbors, but you discover that this is contrary to what you really believe about life and people, then you can opt out of that competition.

Being more aware of how we allow others’ thoughts, feelings, and actions to influence us allows us more opportunities to choose something different that will be better for us.  If your neighbor is building a fancy brick barbecue set-up in his back yard, it might be tempting to do the same yourself, but pausing to reflect on what you really want for your life might result in realizing that most of your motivation to build such a barbecue is to “keep up” with the neighbor and not to use the barbecue once you had it.  Then you can question what is important to you about keeping up with the neighbor.  Is it to avoid being looked down on by the neighbor as inferior?  Is it competing in general, which reassures your wife that you will be able to take care of the family?  These considerations put you in a better position to decide whether to put time and money into a brick barbecue or perhaps use that time and money to take your children to the nation’s capital or simply save the money in their college fund.

In a section above, ways of dealing with various desires, wants, and other disturbers of contentment were presented.  Many of them employ the strategy of being more conscious, which means not dwelling on the goal of what is desired or wanted but rather being aware of everything else as well (what we are actually subjectively experiencing, what is really important to us, the good aspects of our existence), as alternative places for attention and as comforting counterpoints to our concerns.  Understanding what the real need or desire is behind symbolic gratifications such as status, wealth, power, and being seen as perfect allows us to find gratifications for what is really wanted and to avoid all of the problems and game-playing that can be involved in gaining the more superficial gratifications that many of us think we want.

Reflecting on The Big Picture

Greater consciousness allows us to reflect on the totality of our lives and experience, rather than giving too much importance to one current desire.  Wanting a new dress for a social event might seem very important if that is all one can think about, but putting that dress and social event in the context of your whole life makes it smaller and may lead you to put less emphasis on it or to think of an action that could further your goals even better than the dress, such as a trip to the city to nurture and develop a new and potentially valuable friendship or using the dress money toward learning a new skill.

Purposely thinking about the big picture gives us important perspective on things and allows us to assign value to various possible futures more appropriately.  One can also gain additional perspective by getting the input of others one trusts, or even by imagining input from others, as in wondering “What would Jesus do?” or “What would my mom do?”

Seeing the big picture also gives us opportunity to see the inter-relatedness of things and to see more clearly how our own possible actions may affect others or the world in general.  We value our freedom to do what we want, but this should be tempered by taking responsibility for all of the results of our actions.  We are used to dumping waste into rivers and into the ocean without thinking about any consequences (such as endangering the health of people downstream or the health of the ocean ecosystem), but we have done so much of it over time that we now see that we are changing the planet (killing plants, animals, and people) and need other attitudes about responsibility for waste in general.  If building another story onto your house overlooking the ocean gives you a better view but cuts off someone else’s view, it may be legal for you to build, but you may engender enough anger in others that you end up suffering significantly as well as harming others.  Everything that we do affects others and the environment (the gases from your car and fireplace, the attitude toward others that you display when with them, etc.), so consider all of the effects of your actions (and how their future actions will affect you as well) before acting.

Do What Is Truly Best For You

Human beings are built to do what they consider to be the best thing that they can do for themselves at all times.  The problem is that what they consider to be the best thing for themselves may not actually be the best thing.  Drug addicts decide that the best thing they can do right now is take the drug again, but most of us would agree that in terms of the total and eventual outcomes of such behavior, it is not the best thing for them.  We might decide that the best thing right now is to eat the hot fudge sundae, but if we are also trying to lose weight, it is probably not the best thing for us.  “Doing the right thing” has a bad reputation because when we were growing up, parents used this mantra to tell us not to do something we wanted to do, hence it became associated in our minds with giving up good things for the sake of someone else’s approval or image of us.  Children feel this only as an unwarranted interference, but as adults, we can see, if we want to, that the purpose of giving up those good things that we wanted was to make our lives better overall, either through avoiding punishments for doing what we wanted to do, through creating better relations with others and enjoying the benefits of that, or through gaining even greater rewards in the future as a result of giving up what we wanted immediately (termed “delay of gratification”).

Even when we are free to decide for ourselves what we want to do, we often decide in short-sighted ways, when if we paused to think seriously about all of the likely consequences of different courses of action, we might well decide on another one.  The emphasis in the 60’s on “doing your own thing” and on personal freedom, as well as the extreme capitalism of our current society both make it appear that you have a responsibility to yourself to do what you want to do (“Have it your way” at Burger King), but always siding with your impulses to satisfy immediate needs (consume something, “get your anger out”) will waste resources and leave your life barren in the end.

Deciding on what is truly best for oneself involves pausing to consider seriously what is best, taking into account all of the consequences of various possible actions, including emotional outcomes, future outcomes, and the impact of your actions on others.  People typically assess only the immediate concrete outcomes of possible actions (enjoying the hot fudge sundae versus not enjoying it) and tend to ignore on purpose emotional outcomes (feeling guilty later for eating it) as well as long-term outcomes (weight gain, or at least lack of weight loss).  Nations that go to war to right a supposed wrong, defend their honor, or pre-empt what they think will be an attack on themselves usually weigh the immediate goal (aggressively standing up for themselves, believing that one’s nation is once again safe) as being much more important than later consequences (feeling guilty after the war about the thousands of men dead or maimed for life on both sides, feeling foolish when no weapons of mass destruction are found, immense national debt that takes decades to pay off, earning the justified hatred of many of another country’s people for years to come, becoming a hated symbol among nations of  “might makes right”).

As these examples point out, many times the best thing for ourselves is to do nothing or not to take actions that we “feel like” taking.  This is a very important skill to learn. The only reason many people find within themselves to inhibit an action is fear, usually fear of reprisal or punishment.  Basing giving up some reward on knowing that one is doing what is best for oneself can provide a positive reason for giving it up and the comforting feeling that one is doing “the right thing.”  The key to making this tolerable at first, until the awareness of doing what is best for oneself becomes automatic and stronger, is to focus clearly on the two futures that one envisions, the one in which one takes the action, gets the reward, and then pays some price for it, and the one in which one does not take the action, foregoes that immediate reward, and later feels better or gets larger rewards without that price.  Seeing clearly that one will be better off by inhibiting the desired action, by envisioning vividly and comparing the outcomes of both course of action, allows us to feel good about inhibiting the desired action, from the awareness that we are benefiting ourselves and not just giving up something.  (Part of our preference for immediate rewards comes from the fact that it is easier for us to imagine the immediate outcome than to imagine the more distant outcome, but if we focus on making a fair comparison, we can do this better.)

Questioning How Much Is Enough

In deciding what is truly best for ourselves, we must once again consider the conundrum of “how much is enough?”  Since we have no built-in limits on gratification through symbolic activity (e.g., accumulating wealth to make up for poor self-image; viewing presents as a true representation of love), we must use our awareness of ourselves and our informed predications of outcomes to help us to set out own limits.  Comparing the overall outcomes for one’s life of having a bigger house and having a smaller house could lead, given some circumstances (lower house payment, only one occupant, etc.) to choosing the smaller house.  Comparing the difference in one’s life overall between having a bigger TV or a smaller TV would probably lead to a tie.  Bigger and more are not always better.  We may be better off or happier sometimes by not getting more.  These realizations make contentment possible.

A simple answer to the question of how much is enough might be that what is sufficient is enough, but this still leaves us with the subjective judgment of what is sufficient–in particular, what standards are used to define sufficient.  In terms of our decision-making process, we can see that for each decision, we establish our own (and sometimes different) standards for what is sufficient at the moment, in terms of our overt felt need/want, our predictions of how each choice would affect our lives, the associated psychological gratifications of each choice, and the consistency of each choice with our values.  Given this complex decision process, the best we can do is to carefully consider each element as honestly as we can (i.e., try to reduce the self-fooling that we might be doing by “loading the dice” and giving “biased” answers to our own questions).

These questions, if honestly considered and answered, can help us to get some perspective on how much we “need” versus want and how much would be sufficient.

·       Why do I want this?

·       Do I really need this?

·       How exactly would this make my life better overall?

·       What is it that I really want?

·       By getting this, am I trying to make myself feel better about myself or more secure (or to fulfill some other emotional need)?

·       Could I achieve this in some other way?

·       In seeking this, am I using the world’s resources in ways that threaten my future or are unfair to others or to future generations?

·       Is pursuing this consistent or inconsistent with what I view as my values?

Allowing Desires To Fade

A simple method of not taking action to fulfill a desire is inhibiting the action until the desire fades.  Emotions and desires both fade with time (with the exception, of course, of those that arise when our lives are threatened), and we can simply wait for them to fade.  If employed without too much stress, this strategy can be useful in one’s quest for contentment.  Observing the fading over and over shows us clearly that acting on most desires is not necessary but is actually optional, no matter how much we want something at the time.

Accept That Whatever Comes Is Enough

Reflecting on the philosophy that accepts whatever comes as enough can cast light on our quest for contentment.  It is surprising to many of us, but some people with few resources exist relatively contentedly by accepting whatever comes.  People who are homeless or hobos and people who believe fervently in the grace of God, for example, find what they can in life, sometimes on the fringes of society, and manage to survive.  Those of us who are more planful, with our insurances and retirement savings, could learn something from this.  Our tendency is to try to cover all bases, so that we can feel secure and relaxed, and this approach has benefits, of course, in enabling us to live longer and more comfortably, but we can find some assurance also in the fact that it doesn’t take much to survive and to be relatively content.  Most of us could do without much of what we have, if we had to.

Be Happy With What You Have

Our society is so permeated with the value and importance of desires and gratifications that most of us never ask ourselves whether we are actually OK with regard to our lives, what we have, and how we feel.  We are simply focused, as we think everyone else is, on the next acquisition or experience, and we can even feel empty and purposeless if we are not trying to acquire something further.  The fact is that most of our lives are OK just the way they are, and we can take some comfort in that fact when we recognize it.  We don’t really need the bigger house, the bigger truck, the bigger TV, the brick barbecue, or the smaller cell phone.  Acquiring them and using them would feel good for a time, but that satisfaction would quickly fade, and we would need to acquire something else to have that good feeling again.  Perhaps the feeling of having enough, of one’s life being OK, could be gratifying, too, if we gave it a chance.  (Of course, one should take into account the actual benefits, as opposed to the psychological benefits, of acquiring an improved edition of a tool or product, and those new benefits may make a good argument for acquiring the new edition.)  The situations of most of us make contentment quite feasible.  Contrary to the current accepted wisdom in business, that if an entity is not growing and changing then it is declining, a human life of thoughtful maintenance and enhancement is feasible and fulfilling.  More is not necessarily better, and contrary to the popular license plate slogan, the one with the most toys at the end does not “win.”


Being more content is entirely feasible for many people in our society.  Being more conscious of ourselves and the realities of life allows us not to be driven by unconsidered desires but to decide for ourselves what we really want and what would be consistent with our true values.  Turning our focus away from sources of discontent (what we don’t have but want) also helps us to feel content.  Feeling content does not imply a static life, since people who are content still have goals that they strive for and things that they want, but they are not driven by these goals and desires, and their lives are shaped not by these goals and desires but by a sense of the bigger picture of what is important.  Being content allows us to seek what is most gratifying rather than seeking the temporary good feeling of acquiring and initial ownership. What is most gratifying for human beings are good and deep relationships, the use of one’s abilities in creative activity (that expresses oneself or that benefits the lives of others), and the fulfillment that comes from making a success of one’s life in these respects through deeper self-awareness and the good life decisions that that can bring.

Being more content in one’s life is a personal choice but one which in our society requires being different from others who are living lives of striving, stimulation, and pleasure.  Feeling relatively enduringly content in your life is possible and means basically not feeling pressure from needs, desires, and dissatisfactions.  Contentment is enhanced by—

·       developing greater emotional equilibrium and therefore becoming more centered and serene

·       developing the ability to accept even while seeking change

·       redefining your standards so that you feel that what you have is “enough” and that who you are is “enough”

·       refining your standards and expectation of yourself so that you are truly OK with yourself

·       becoming better able to manage shame, guilt, inadequacy, and other negative feelings about yourself, so that you can accept yourself fully and view yourself as being OK

·       being more conscious of everything about yourself and your life

·       pausing to seriously consider what is truly best for yourself in the big picture of your total life

·       practicing being happy about what you have

·       being confident in and satisfied with the results when you do your best and are truly yourself, regardless of the outcomes