Archive for May, 2008


For what fraction of our lives are we enjoying ourselves? Is it 80%? 50%? 20%? Sadly, when we monitor our state of mind over the course of a day, we often find that the fraction is depressingly low. Even if we have very enviable lives, we may spend a rather small amount of time actually enjoying ourselves. In contrast, those with less fortunate lives may spend a high proportion of time enjoying themselves. What are the factors that stop us from enjoying ourselves, and how can we enjoy ourselves more?

There are two main factors that stop us from enjoying ourselves. The first is an active dislike of our current situation. This means that we find whatever we are doing to be distasteful, be it our regular day job, washing the dishes, or talking to an irritating colleague. If a high proportion of our days are spent doing activities that we actively dislike, then we have a problem. The solution may be to change jobs or trade responsibilities to make our days more enjoyable. In some cases, all that is needed is a simple change in attitude. For example, we may think that doing the dishes is a horrible task, but when we further reflect on it we realize that soaking our hands in warm water and gently scrubbing can actually be quite relaxing. Similarly, a boring job can be made more stimulating if we come up with creative challenges for ourselves to break the monotony.

The second factor that stops us from enjoying ourselves is when we pay very little attention to our current situation and instead become preoccupied in thought. For example, instead of enjoying a pleasant walk through the park on the way to work, we may be busy deciding what to cook for dinner, or how to spend the weekend, or whether to buy a new car. Instead of enjoying the present, we are plotting ways to enjoy the future. Clearly, this cycle is never-ending.

Hence, there are several things we can do to make our lives more enjoyable. First, we can stay with the present moment and thus enjoy that walk through the park, the coffee in the waiting room, or the gentle breeze on our face. Second, instead of actively disliking certain situations, we can learn to accept them and make the most of them. We can change our attitudes and realize that many inherently “bad” situations or tasks are actually quite relaxing. Third, we can look at our daily activities and discover what we do and don’t enjoy. Then, as much as possible, we can restructure and change our days to create a more satisfying life.

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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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