“Don’t worry, be happy.”
Bob Marley made it sound so easy, but feeling happy no matter your situation forms a challenge for most of us. It’s hard to be bursting with joy when you’re exhausted and in pain, or when you’re struggling with money troubles and heartache.
Over the past decades, countless of popular psychology books and articles have shown us that there are things we can do to influence our level of happiness. Although our genes and life circumstances definitely play a role too, we can all take steps to get happier.
Of course, that’s great news. And recommended habits like practicing gratitude, moving your body regularly, spending time in nature and building strong relationships all prove to boost your emotional wellbeing. But is the pursuit of happiness actually making us feel better?
Our Western fixation with feeling happy has put a lot of pressure on people to be upbeat all the time. Everyone is responsible for their own happiness. And if you’re not happy, it’s your fault for not trying hard enough. Even when you suffer from chronic illness or mental health problems, you’re told to “just be positive” – as if that magically makes your symptoms go away.
That’s also because there seems to be some societal misunderstandings of what happiness really means. Too often, we think that happiness means a general state of positivity, in which we no longer have negative emotions. We forget that sadness, anger and worrying are all part of the full human experience. Heck, we even need negative feelings to survive, stay healthy and grow through adversity.
What’s more, we believe that certain achievements will bring us that state of happiness:
“I’ll be happy when I’m better again, when I’m no longer in pain.”
“I’ll be happy when I find someone who loves and supports me, unconditionally.”
“I’ll be happy when I get that job/house/car.”
But the thing is, these results usually don’t happen overnight. More importantly, you don’t have full control over your health, how someone else feels about you and whether or not you get hired. So why let your happiness depend on things that are not within your reach?
I believe you don’t have to be jumping with joy every day or see the world through rose-colored glasses to be satisfied with your life, even if you’re chronically ill. You can start feeling more balanced, peaceful and fulfilled today, by making one mental shift: choosing contentment over happiness.
Why You Should Choose Contentment over Happiness
Waking up with a smile on your face every day is a lot to ask for. What if we made ‘feeling happy’ a lot more feasible by redefining what happiness means?
Many of us think of happiness as a fluctuating mood, focused on moments of joy, pleasure and excitement. But I find it much more helpful and inspiring to see happiness as an overall, long-term sense of contentment. Here’s why.
1. Contentment combines appreciation with acceptance
Contentment refers to a deeply-rooted acceptance of who you are, what you have and where you find yourself at a given time. Even though life is far from perfect, you appreciate what goes right. You feel comfortable with yourself, imperfections and all.
Unlike the more common concept of happiness, contentment does acknowledge your reality, including the problems you’re facing. But instead of ignoring or sugar-coating negative feelings, contentment gives you room to feel all emotions, without labeling them ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
While accepting all aspects of your life, contentment focuses on what you do have. It celebrates the good things while you work through the bad ones. Because even in the toughest times, there’s always something or someone to be grateful for.
2. Contentment comes from within
In our society, happiness is often linked to external events: getting a degree, finding love or simply buying a fabulous dress. Deep down, there’s this expectation that once you reach your goal, you’ll find that fulfillment you’re looking for. And sometimes you will, when you pursue dreams that are meaningful to you. But who hasn’t been disappointed when the novelty of that new gadget or accomplishment wore off, leaving you feeling exactly the same as you did before?
Contrary to happiness, contentment is less fixated on future goals. It focuses on appreciating what you already have in the present moment. That makes contentment less dependent on your situation. Especially pleasure and excitement, two forms of happiness, are often triggered by things outside of you, whereas contentment comes more from within.
Of course it’s easier to feel satisfied with life when you have a job you enjoy, a loving family and beautiful home than when you’re sick and lonely. But Viktor Frankl’s moving memoir ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ proves that humans have been able to find a sense of meaning even in the most harrowing circumstances.
3. Contentment is sustainable
Your happiness level can go up and down day by day. Joy and passion are fleeting emotions, but contentment is more stable over time. You can have a bad day and still experience that enduring appreciation for your life as a whole.
What’s more, contentment allows you to remove things from your life, and still feel satisfied. Essentialism, for example, focuses on having and doing less, but better. Happiness, on the other hand, often revolves around more possessions, bigger achievements and exciting new adventures. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more, but it can create dissatisfaction with your current situation, making you unhappy. And when you live with chronic illness, you already get your fair share of unfulfilled desires, disappointment and frustration.
4. Contentment can actually be an accelerator for change
It may sound paradoxical, but feeling content does not mean you don’t wish for a better future. Contentment is not the same as complacency – in fact, being content can actually be an accelerator for change.
Contentment can give you the peace of mind you need to grow and improve yourself. Not because you feel you’re not good enough, but because you have this inner desire to learn, to do good or hone your talents.
How to Start Feeling More Content
Ok, so you get the upsides of shifting your mindset from wanting to be happy to feeling content with what you have right now. But how can you cultivate contentment in your life? Especially when you’re struggling with fatigue, painful symptoms and everyday practical problems? Here are 5 tips to get you started.
- Practice mindfulness. By focusing on the present without judgement, you take away a source of potential dissatisfaction. Because if something isn’t labeled “bad/awful/fabulous” in your mind but just as ‘a sensation or feeling’, then it becomes easier to be content with your situation. Have a look at these 9 everyday rituals to infuse some mindfulness into your days.
- Count your blessings. Yes, I know it can be infuriating to hear someone tell you to focus on the positive when you have so many horrible things going on in your life. But training your brain to notice the good things in life does not downplay your struggles – it only helps to make the pain a little more bearable. So each night, try to write down 3 things that went well that day. This gratitude exercise has proven to be of the most effective ways to increase your true, long-term happiness.
- Stop comparing yourself to others or your ideal self. Social media, magazines and TV shows can make it seem like everyone’s got it all figured out, with the most mundane moments turned into glamorous shots. But Instagram is a carefully constructed highlight reel of someones life, not their reality. If those sneak peeks into peoples lives are giving you FOMO, envy or low self image, please take a closer look at your mental diet. You are enough.
- Embrace the art of savouring. Take time to appreciate the good things in life by consciously enjoying simple pleasures. Savouring intensifies and lengthens the positive emotions you experience. So make the most of everyday moments by engaging all your senses, kissing with passion and dance like nobody’s watching.
- Look back at how far you’ve already come. We’re so eager to look to the (long) road ahead of us, that we forget to celebrate all the mini milestones along the way. If your first reaction is,”but I haven’t come far”, remember: you’ve survived 100% of your worst days! If that’s not an accomplishment, I don’t know what is.
For more ideas of how to cultivate contentment, download ‘The Little Book of Contentment’ from Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta for free.
‘Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.’ ~ Lao Tzu
What’s your take on choosing contentment over happiness? And how do you cultivate contentment in your life, even when you’re chronically ill?
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