The Incredible Power of Contentment

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero

By Leo Babauta

While many readers have noted my efforts and articles on self-improvement, what I haven’t stressed as much is the beauty of becoming content with what you have and who you already are.

I’m definitely a goal-oriented person — I always have my eye on a goal, whether that’s writing a book, running a marathon, improving my blog, waking early, losing weight, or one of a dozen other goals I’ve had (and usually achieved) in the last couple of years. And once I’ve achieved a goal, I begin looking for another: now that I finished my second marathon, I’m already looking for a third.

So isn’t that a contradiction? Doesn’t that seem to indicate that I’m not content with my life? Not at all. I’m extremely content with my life, with what I have, and with who I am. I have accepted that I am the type of person who will always be striving for a goal, the type of person who enjoys a challenge, and who enjoys the journey. It’s not the goal that matters to me — it’s the journey to get there that is so fun. And I’m content with being that type of person.

So contentment isn’t a matter with being content with your situation in life and never trying to improve it. It’s a matter of being content with what you have — but realizing that as humans, we will always try to improve, no matter how happy we are. If we don’t, we have given up on life.

Today I’d like to discuss contentment, and the amazing things it can do in all aspects of our lives. And then we’ll look at a few tips for getting to contentment.

“Happiness is self-contentedness.” – Aristotle

My Life
I’m going to use my life as an example here, only because I’m more intimately familiar with it than any other life. Looking back, I wasn’t always content. There have been times in my life when I wasn’t happy, when things seemed dismal, when I wish I had more. I wasn’t content with the way things were, and now I know that my outlook on life was a major contributor to my unhappiness.

We choose whether we are happy or unhappy. Read that sentence again if it’s not already something you consciously practice in your daily life. If you’re unhappy with your life right now, I will venture to guess that it’s because you’ve chosen to be unhappy. That sounds harsh, but in my experience it’s completely true. Edit based on reader comments: I cannot speak to whether this concept of happiness applies to everyone — especially clinically depressed or those with similar disorders, people who are starving or homeless, people who have undergone massive tragedies or abuse, or others in such circumstances. However, for most readers, I believe the principles will apply.

You might say, “But my life is crap! Of course I’m going to be unhappy!” And I hear you: I’ve had those times when my job wasn’t going well, when my relationships weren’t going well, when my finances were very bad, when I was overweight, when my life was a mess.

But listen to this: I’ve had those conditions at several points in my life. And sometimes, I was unhappy in those kinds of conditions. And others, I was happy and content. So I’ve come to the conclusion — and it’s proven true time and again — that it’s not the conditions that make me unhappy, but my choice of thoughts, of attitude, of behavior.

What behaviors and thoughts and attitudes were different between my times of unhappiness and happiness? When I was unhappy, I focused on all the bad things in my life. Not only that, but I continually thought about how bad they were, and would complain, and would ask, “Why me?” I would let myself sink into inaction and eventually depression. I would be grumpy and cause those around me to be unhappy. That, in turn, only made the situation worse. It certainly didn’t help my job.

Let’s look at the times of happiness, in contrast: I focused instead on the good things in my life. Because while I had problems at my job and with my relationships and with my finances and health and all that … there were still good things. At least I had a job! At least I had someone who loved me! At least I wasn’t sick! At least I wasn’t bankrupt and homeless! I counted, instead, my blessings. I do this when things aren’t looking so good, and it turns me around.

I had a wife and beautiful children. I had the power to change my job. To simplify my life. To get out of debt. I had my health, even if I was overweight. I lived on a beautiful island with gorgeous beaches and wildlife and greenery. I had family around me who loved me. I had the power of my words, and my books that I loved reading. I had life!

And this outlook on life helped me to be happier. It improved my relationship, because I tried to appreciate my wife. It improved everything around me, in short — and we’ll take a closer look at those things next.

I was happy, despite my conditions, because I chose to be happy. I found contentment in what I already had, instead of wishing I had something else, instead of being discontented with what I had. Contentment not only made me happy, but it transformed my life in many ways. Here’s how.

This is perhaps the most obvious area affected on this list, because many people see “contentedness” and “happiness” as one and the same. In many ways, they are, but it’s really a matter of focus. When you’re happy, it’s really a state of being, influenced by a number of factors, including contentedness.

Contentedness, on the other hand, is a matter of being satisfied with what you have. It focuses on what you have and don’t have instead of just being a state of being. It influences happiness. However, you can choose to be content, just as you can choose to be happy, and if you choose to be content, you will be happy.

There are many ways to become happy — you can become happy by doing certain things (running, getting into Flow, sex), you can become happy because you are loved or in love, you can become happy because you just won a competition or a million dollars. Being content is just one way to be happy, but it’s a great way.

Simplicity, of course, means many things to many people, but for me contentedness is at the core of simplicity. It’s about being content with less, with a simpler life, rather than always wanting more, always acquiring more, and never being content.

Simplicity means examining why you want more, and solving that issue at its root. At the root of wanting more is not being content with what you have. Once you’ve learned to be content, you don’t need more. You can stop acquiring, and start enjoying.

Now, I won’t claim to never want stuff. I wanted a Macbook Air and I got it. It’s helping me to write this post and this book right now. (However, in my defense, I waited more than a month before buying it to make sure I needed it.) But while I am not immune to wants, I have learned to catch myself now and then, and to examine why I want something. And then I try to tell myself that I already have everything I could possibly want and need. And that contentedness leads to simplicity.

Really this is the same as simplicity, but I wanted to show it from a financial angle. The reason we get into financial trouble, oftentimes, is that we buy more than we can afford. And the root of that buying is buying things we want instead of only things we need, and the root of that is not being content with what we already have.

Finding contentment with the stuff you have and with a simpler life can lead to buying less, to buying things we need instead of want, and to only spending what we can afford. I know this first-hand, as uncontrolled spending led to debt for me, and contentedness led to me getting out of debt.

Many times it seems that we’re never satisfied with our significant others. They don’t behave how we want them to. That’s often at the root of relationship problems, as many-headed as those problems may seem.

Instead, learn to be content with the person you love, just as they are. This isn’t always easy, as we are usually trained (by our well-intentioned but never-satisfied parents, and others around us) to do just the opposite — to try to change people. However, you will only find trouble if you try to change your significant other. You might get them to change their behavior (but most often not), but they will be unhappy, and in turn the relationship will suffer.

I will admit to having a problem with this at times, but when this happens, I try to remind myself to love my partner as she is, for who she is. She is a beautiful person, just as she is now, and there is absolutely no need to change her. This has always led to a better relationship for me.

As mentioned above, parents are often not satisfied with their children. They need to be cleaner, better behaved, better in school, more organized and studious, more courteous and kind and compassionate, better groomed and better at sports. Well, that leads to the relationship problems mentioned above, later in the kids’ lives, as they have learned to never be satisfied with others and to try to change them.

It also leads to inferiority complexes in our children, in unhappiness, and in bad relationships with them. Instead, we should learn to love our children unconditionally, to accept them for the people they are, and to let them know this through not only our words but our actions.

Accept children for who they are, and they will be happier, and so will you.

Should we be content with our jobs? Well, I won’t say that you should stick with a dead-end job and a boss that treats you like dirt. If you’re unhappy with your job, change it. That’s been my approach and it’s worked for me.

However, I have learned that being a content person in other areas of my life, and being content with my life in general, has generally helped me at any job. Discontented people tend to be complainers, or grumpy, or negative. That leads to problems at the job. People who are content tend not to complain and tend to have a more positive attitude, and in my experience that almost always leads to more opportunities, both within the job (promotions, new projects, etc.) and outside the job (job offers, networking, etc.).

Social change
I’ve heard some writers say that people like me, who preach happiness and contentedness and a positive outlook on life, are teaching people to accept social injustice and not strive for change. I disagree completely, and as someone who would like a freer society than the one in which we currently live, I have given this much thought.

My favorite social disrupter, Gandhi, had two seemingly contradictory quotes on the subject of contentedness. The first: “Man’s happiness really lies in contentment.” And the second: “Healthy discontent is the prelude to progress.

This might seem confusing until you look at how Gandhi brought about change. He was discontent with the system of oppression in his country, so he sought to change it. However, he was content as a person, with who he was and what he had in his personal life. This inner content allowed him to have the inner power to face (and eventually beat) the very powerful authorities in his country at the time. He could face them because nothing they could do to him could take away his happiness. They could take away all his possessions, throw him in prison, take away even food, and he was content.

He taught his fellow countrymen the same lesson, to make the best of what they had in India (making their own simple clothing, making their own food) instead of wanting the commercial goods from foreign countries. Being content with such simplicity would give them the independence from foreign commercial powers, and eventually (as they are part of the same organism) foreign political powers.

So social change can still happen if you are content with yourself, with your life, but not content with the system of oppression around you. This system, in my opinion, is responsible for holding us down, for the deaths of millions of people in Third World countries … but it isn’t until we learn to be content with what we have, and free ourselves of our dependence on commercial goods, that we will be able to change the system for good.

Getting to Contentment
So if contentedness is so great, how do you get there? That’s not always easy, but here are some things that have worked for me:

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning