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The Gifts of Contentment

April 5, 2010

Cover of The Language of Emotions

It’s clear that many of us avoid the so-called “difficult” emotions, such as sadness or anger, and that in so doing, we also inadvertently avoid the gifts and strengths they bring. Though it is very unfortunate, it makes sense that we avoid these emotions, because they’ve gotten such terrible press.

However, I’ve been interested to see that many of us also avoid the so-called “positive” emotions as well. We denigrate happy people by calling them slaphappy, or blissful fools, and sadly, we lose touch with the gifts of the happiness-based emotions (I simplify them into happiness, contentment, and joy, but you can also add laughter, bliss, gaiety, exuberance, and so on).

When I look at people’s relationship to their own contentment, I look to their work ethic first. I find that people who prefer to keep working rather than celebrating their achievements; who get slowed down by perfectionism; who tend to avoid activities that are too challenging; and who believe that talent is bestowed upon others (but not them) have difficulty expressing their own contentment.

The Gifts of Contentment: Pleasure & Appreciation
Satisfaction ~ Self Esteem ~ Enjoyment ~ Renewal ~ Fulfillment

Contentment is an emotion that comes forward to celebrate your behavior, your achievements, and your willingness to challenge yourself. Many of us don’t welcome contentment because we’ve been told that it’s vain or pompous to think well of ourselves. This is a problem, because contentment actually gives us the permission and courage to be truly ourselves and strive for difficult goals. If we don’t welcome our contentment, it’s very hard to appreciate ourselves, our possessions, or our achievements.

Contentment is related to happiness, but the two emotions are different from one another. Happiness tends to anticipate a bright future, while contentment tends to arise after an inner achievement. Contentment arises when you’re living up to your own expectations and your internal moral code, and when you’ve accomplished an important goal or done your work well and properly. Contentment comes forward in response to your tangible actions and mastery of clear-cut challenges. Contentment also arises when you’ve successfully navigated through your difficult emotions – especially your angers, hatreds, and shames. When you’ve restored your boundaries, honored the boundaries of others, and corrected your actions or made amends, your contentment will come forward to confirm and validate your excellent behavior. Authentic contentment arises reliably when you respect yourself and others, and when you respect your emotions and allow them to guide your behavior.

Social structures often interfere with your authentic contentment by trying to replace or usurp your internal confirmations with prizes and praise that come from the external world. While it’s very nice to receive gold stars, awards, extra privileges, and special attention, these fabricated confirmations can actually short-circuit your own ability to feel honest pride or self-worth unless someone throws a party every time you accomplish something. External praise also contains a troublesome aspect that’s not a part of internal contentment – and that’s competition. All external praise and awards come with built-in comparisons that place you in a rivalry with others. Though the awards and praise may have their own value, they tend to isolate you from your peers and identify you as a competitor or a pleaser, which will often bring your natural shame forward to question the “fun” of winning. In natural contentment, there is no shame, because your achievements aren’t about doing better than others, but about honoring your own good judgment, good work, and personal values.

If you cannot connect with your natural contentment, you may have a short-circuit that was created by authoritarian, scholastic, or parental structures. This short-circuit can take two forms: the first form may lead you to seek praise and awards instead of your own internal confirmations. This often means you’ll tend toward pleasing and perfectionism instead of wholeness and emotional agility. You’ll tend toward following this rule, chasing that award, and constantly measuring yourself against external expectations (or fighting the awards and losing your drive), instead of allowing your honest emotional reactions to guide you.

The second form of short-circuit may lead you to avoid contentment because you don’t want to be in competition with anyone; you don’t want to play. You just want to work unheralded, and yet you may quietly long for praise, or confirmation (or watch dumbfounded as less talented people are promoted or lauded). In either case, it’s time to reintroduce yourself to your healthy, authentic contentment once again. Then, you can guide, correct, and validate yourself in self-respecting ways rather than relying on (or totally avoiding) external validation.

Photo of contented frog

The practice for all of the happiness-based emotions is extremely simple and infinitely hard (at first): You acknowledge them, thank them, and then let them go completely. If you try to force your contentment to be your leading emotional state (or if you try to live without it completely) you’ll lose your way in a split-second. Real, honest contentment arises naturally when you work with all of your emotions in healing and honorable ways. Welcome your contentment with open arms when it arises, thank it, and congratulate yourself (The internal statement for contentment is “Thank you for renewing my faith in myself!”) – then let it go and know it will come back the next time you honor yourself and behave in ways that make you feel proud.

When your contentment arises, your job is to celebrate your excellent fortune and skills – and then let it go so that you can move on to your next challenge.

4 Comments

Simon April 5, 2010 at 5:42 am

perfect article for how I am feeling right now: just like that frog in the photo. It’s true, contentment does challenge me to achieve. It’s very true.

JY April 6, 2010 at 12:33 am

Very nice froggy of contentment on lily pad! It’s funny how inner contentment can exist even in a whirl of external difficulties, or even side-by-side more difficult emotions. It’s the sense of rising to challenges. I like your commentary on the social nature of competition and its effects on one’s inner life…

Karla April 6, 2010 at 4:53 am

That froggy is stylin’!

I just read a book about child development that said competition was good, but I really didn’t feel that way when I was young. And I won a lot of contests! But it wasn’t fun when I saw the sadness and shock of the kids who lost.

I preferred the contests I could wage against myself. I used to play 3 and 4-handed card games against myself. Strange child!

JY April 6, 2010 at 6:46 pm

I know, competition is a double-edged sword! It’s a huge part of adolescent-into-adult culture, and I suspect how it is used/taught/learned is everything in the socialization process including how we (learn to) deal with all the attendant emotions.

As a kid, I felt I was on highly dangerous ground on the competitive field. It was not easy to navigate the manifest envy & shame & anger that came with it, at least for me and in the school/home environment I grew up in. It’s only along the way that I learned what purposes competition serves, but I see a lot of damage in people because of the value we give it in our culture.

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