The Source of Contentment

By Leo Babauta

My friend Jesse sent me this video of Henri Nouwen (worth a watch) that talked about three sources of happiness that are very unreliable.

They’re based on different ways to answer the fundamental question, “Who am I?”:

  1. What I do: If we are what we do, then when we do good things, and are a success, we’re very happy! But what if we fail, or stop doing good things for awhile? What if things don’t go our way and we can’t do good things? Then we lose our source of happiness.
  2. What other people think of me: If people praise what I do, if people love my book, if people think I’m good looking … I can be proud and happy. But what if they say something mean about me? What if they don’t like my book, if no one cares very much about me? Then I’m unhappy, even with a small remark.
  3. What I have: If I have a nice house and car, or lots of friends, or family that loves me … I’m very happy. But what if I lose those possessions, or my friends move away, or my family members die? Then I’m not happy.

As you can see, these three sources of happiness and contentment … they cover the vast majority of ways we see ourselves. We want to be a success, we want people to think well of us, we want to have friends and nice things. Everything we do online, from Facebook and Instagram to doing work … these are usually based on one of those things, because we’re worried about what people think of us, or we want to do good work, or have friends.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do good work or having friends … but if these things are the source of who you are, they are fickle sources. You’ll be great one day, and not so great the next.

If someone is doing better than you, you’ll be down. If someone is living a better life than you, traveling and partying and living glamorously, you’ll be down. If people don’t think well of you, or say something a bit spiteful, you’ll be down. This happens to us all the time, if we’re honest.

Nouwen’s answer is to redefine yourself as God’s beloved, which is definitely a more stable source of contentment. But what if you’re not religious?

I think the idea of finding a more constant source of contentment by redefining who you are is a very useful one. I’ve been experimenting with it for a little while, and it makes a huge difference.

How do you redefine who you are? This can take a lot of soul-searching, but here’s my answer for myself: I’m love and compassion. That’s who I am. That doesn’t mean I always respond with love to others – I’m human and certainly not perfect. I don’t always live up to this, but I feel that it’s true.

Here’s a secret, though: even if you don’t know who you are, try pretending. It still works, as weird as that may seem.

A few examples:

These examples work even if you aren’t really sure who you are. You can just pretend to be “love and compassion”, and you’ll still feel the insecurity and fears and distractions melt away.