zenhabits : breathe

The Little Guide to Contentedness

‘He who is contented is rich.’ ~Lao Tzu

Post written by Leo Babauta.

There has been little in my life that has made as much an impact as learning to be content — with my life, where I am, what I’m doing, what I have, who I’m with, who I am.

This little trick changes everything.

Let’s take a look at my life before contentedness:

I was addicted to junk food and fast food, and overweight and unhealthy. I bought too many things on impulse, owned too much clutter, and was deeply in debt and struggling to make it to the next payday. I was unhappy with who I was, wanted desperately to change, tried a thousand different programs and books. I was always worried I was missing out on exciting things, and wanted so much to be out doing the fun things everyone else was doing. I was always changing the way I did things, because it seemed everyone else had a better system or tools. I strove to meet goals, because they would get me to a better life.

And as I learned to be content, here was what changed:

I learned to be happy with healthier food, with less food, and my health improved and waistline shrunk. I relied on a good book, spending time with people I loved, going for a nice run … and my debt began to be reduced as I learned I didn’t need to spend money to enjoy myself. I learned to be happier with who I was, and what I was doing, and so no longer needed self-improvement books and programs, no longer needed to try all kinds of new systems and tools. I became happy with myself, with those around me, and with what I had — and so didn’t need to strive to change everything. Letting go of goals helped me to simplify things so I had less to worry about, less to do.

That’s just the start. There is no way to account for the tremendous change that happens when you learn to accept who you are, when you tell yourself you are perfect just as you are, when you love yourself and everything about yourself. You stop criticizing yourself, you are happier, you are a better person to be around, and you can now help others and work without the insecurities you had before.

This is not a magical state, and doesn’t require any new tools or books. It’s simple, and I’ll share what has worked for me.

Learning to Be Content

If you are in a bad place in your life, and are unhappy with everything about it (job, relationship, yourself, house, habits, etc.), it can be a miserable thing. But here’s something interesting: it can also be a happy thing.

I’ve been in situations where you might think things were bad, and sometimes I was very unhappy, and other times I was happy. The difference wasn’t in the external circumstances, but in my mindset — I learned to appreciate what I had, instead of focusing on the things I didn’t have or didn’t like. I was grateful for my health, for the people in my life, for having food and being alive.

If you can learn to develop the right mindset, you can be happy now, without changing anything else. You don’t need to wait until you’ve changed everything and made your life perfect before you’re happy — you have everything you need to be happy right now.

The mindset of waiting for happiness is a never-ending cycle. You get a better job (yay!) and then immediately start thinking about what your next promotion will be. You get a nicer house and immediately start looking at how nice your neighbors’ houses are, or the faults in the house you have. You try to change your spouse or kids, and if that works (good luck), you’ll find other things about them that need to be changed. It keeps going, until you die.

Instead, learn that you can be content now, without any external changes. Here’s how to start:

  1. Take a moment to be grateful for something. What in your life is amazing? Even if everything seems to suck, there must be one good thing. It might simply be that you have beauty somewhere nearby, or that you are alive, or that your kids are healthy. Find something, and give thanks for that.
  2. Catch yourself thinking, “This sucks.” It’s amazing how often people think this thought. “This sucks!” “My co-worker is the worst — he sucks!” “My wife doesn’t understand me — this suuucks!” It might be in different words, but if you catch yourself thinking something like that, pause. Reverse the thinking. Find a way to be thankful for the situation. “My wife is a caring and sweet person — maybe I should give her a hug.” “My co-worker might be annoying sometimes, but he has a good heart, and maybe I should get to know him better.” “My room might be messy but at least I have a roof over my head.”
  3. Find the little things that can give you simple joys. What do you need to be happy? I love simple things, like taking a walk, spending time with a loved one, reading a book, eating some berries, drinking tea. These cost very little, and require very little, and can make me very happy. Find the simple things that give you similar happiness, and focus on those rather than what you don’t have.
  4. Find the things about yourself that you’re happy with. We tend to criticize ourselves easily, but what if we turned it around and asked, “What do I do right? What am I good at? What is loveable about me?” Make a list. Start to focus on these things rather than what you’re unhappy with.
  5. Do the same with others in your life. Instead of criticizing them, ask yourself, “What is good about this person? What do I love about them?” Make a list, and focus on these things above all else.
  6. Assume that you, others, and life are perfect. You are great, and don’t need improvement. You aren’t a piece of clay that must be shaped and molded into something better — you are already perfect. Other people are also just as perfect, and don’t need improvement. You just need to appreciate them for who they are. The moment we are living in is not a stepping stone to something better — it is exactly wonderful, and we have already arrived at the perfect moment.

The Contented Life

It might be useful to look at what life would be like if you learned to be content:

  1. Self image. We compare ourselves with the images in our head of perfection — movie stars, models in magazines, other people who seem to have it all together — and we can never measure up to those perfect images. But those images are not real. They are an imagined ideal. Even the beautiful people have bad hair days and feel flabby, and if you take away their photoshopped and heavily-made-up façade, you see that they are every bit as human as you are. Even the people who seem successful, living exciting lives — they have the same self-doubts you have. So if they don’t live up to this ideal image, why should you? And even if they did (which they don’t), why would you need to? When we let go of this image of perfection, we realize that we are already exactly who we should be. And then, all our need for self-improvement, and all the activity and effort and pain that implies, fades away. We are happy with ourselves, and nothing else is needed.
  2. Relationships. If you are content with yourself, you are more likely to be a good friend, partner, parent. You are more likely to be happy and friendly and loving, more likely to be as accepting of others as you are of yourself. Relationships improve, especially when others learn to be content with themselves, from your example.
  3. Health. Much of our culture’s unhealthiness comes from unhappiness — eating junk food to give ourselves comfort and relieve stress, not exercising because we think we can’t (because we have a bad self-image), being glued online because we think we might miss something if we turn off the computer or iPhone. When you realize that you aren’t missing anything, and you don’t need junk food to be happy, and you are good enough to exercise, you can slowly return to health.
  4. Possessions. The overload of possessions in our lives comes from unhappiness — we buy things because we think they’ll give us comfort, coolness, happiness, security, an exciting life. When we become content with ourselves and our lives, we realize none of that is necessary, and we can start getting rid of these extraneous crutches.
  5. Busy-ness. Much of our busy-ness comes from fear that we should be doing more, that we might be missing out, that we aren’t enough already. But we are enough, and we don’t need more, and we aren’t missing out. So we can let go of a lot of unnecessary activity, and just focus on doing what we love, and give ourselves the space to enjoy a contented life.

This is all just a few scratches on the surface of a contented life, but it gives you a picture of what might be. And the truth is, once you learn the simple trick of contentedness, it’s really a picture of what already is. You just need to let go of the fears, and see what is already here.

‘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



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