Archive for Acceptance

Contentment and gratitude

Why are so many of us discontented? Our lives are filled with luxuries and opportunities unimaginable by our ancestors. In the developed world, most of us have abundant food and water, live longer and healthier lives than ever before, have shelter to protect us from the elements, and have considerable control over the direction of our lives. We usually take for granted all of those basic needs, which once occupied so much of people’s minds. Yet the expected result – contentment – has often failed to come about.

Why does this discontentment exist? How can we remove it? If we examine our mind when it is discontented, we find that it is filled with thoughts of what we lack and what we need. Although such thoughts might be justified if we are worried about starvation or shelter for the winter, they are hardly justified for most of our daily concerns. More likely, we are discontented because our car is 5 years old, our clothes are longer fashionable, or we have no date for Saturday night. If we attach so much importance to these minor details, it is no wonder that we are not content.

To find peace and contentment, we must learn to cultivate gratitude and to appreciate what we have. Instead of thinking about what we lack, we must learn to focus on the positives in life. Of particular importance, we must stop comparing ourselves to others and becoming jealous of what we perceive them to have. Why does it matter what our neighbour has? What about all those people less fortunate than ourselves? Our thoughts dictate our feelings. If our thoughts are about what we lack, discontentment follows. The practice of gratitude is a powerful tool to keep us focused on what is right with our lives.

Therefore, whenever we feel discontent, we must try to regain our perspective. We must remember what is truly important in life. Discontentment results from our tendency to blow something out of proportion – to think that a new car, a better house, or even a small salary raise will make all the difference in our lives. If we are dissatisfied with our lot, we may be tempted to try and improve it. However, no improvement in our circumstances will make us any better off unless we also learn to appreciate what we already have.

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The dangers of a happiness obsession

Western society places enormous emphasis on the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans believe it a constitutional right (although, actually, happiness is only mentioned in the Declaration of Independence). The Dalai Lama opens The Art of Happiness by saying that “the very motion of our life is towards happiness”, echoing the words of Aristotle over 2000 years before him. Clearly this pursuit forms a major part of our lives, but is it possible to place too much emphasis on happiness? Is there a danger of an obsession?

This question is addressed in The Psychology of Economic Decisions, and some potential drawbacks are given. One drawback is that we may be so busy evaluating our happiness level that we do not simply enjoy the moment. If we recall some of our happiest moments in life, what were we thinking during them? Most likely, we were not thinking about happiness…we were simply happy. Maybe a split-second later we thought about happiness, but not during that actual moment. Generally speaking, we find activities more enjoyable when we are free from self-evaluation and instead are engaging fully in the activity. An obsession with achieving happiness can interfere with this process.

Another danger is that focusing on this goal of total happiness can make us less satisfied with our current situation. We can be left thinking about how life could be even better. In other words, an obsession with happiness can make us over-sensitive to every moment when we are not happy, which undermines our very goal. Perhaps it is better to simply stop thinking about it?

This is not all to say that we should not pursue happiness. However, we must be careful how we go about it. If we approach this pursuit from the premise that there is something “wrong” with our current situation then we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. After all, as mentioned here, gratitude is an important component of a happy life. Furthermore, the tendency to over-think things is an ever-present danger. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking about happiness, and actually just be happy.

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