I wrote a blog post not too long ago where I mentioned learning to be content with what you have now in every situation you are in, and I had someone ask me shortly after, “how do you learn to be content wherever you are?” Well I don’t like to give open ended advice without any specific and measurable steps you can take, because we are so often inspired by the quotes we see and hear, but we usually don’t know how to follow through, and the inspiration is where it stops.
I love planning and dreaming of the future, but it does have a dark side. Specifically, getting so focused on dreaming and working towards the things you want to have that you start to be unhappy with your current life. This is something I struggle with consistently, and I think it’s fair to say it’s probably a pretty common problem with a lot of people. We let what could be make us depressed, and don’t enjoy the things we have right under our noses.
A major symptom of discontent is trying to fill ourselves with physical things that don’t work, and are often times unhealthy. Eating all the time, shopping ourselves into debt, sex, constantly reading self-help books to fix our lives, being jealous of someone else’s life instead of happy for them, living for the future, wandering from place to place, jumping from job to job, etc. We tend to fill our lives full of things trying to make ourselves happy, but none of those things have the ability to do that. They are just temporary distractions. Here are five steps to find true contentment, not a cheap imitation of it.
1. Identify the things you are grateful for right now.
So many times we think of all the things we want in the future with the poisonous belief that they will bring us happiness. We fail to notice all the things currently in our lives that are absolutely wonderful. Pull out a piece of paper, and make a list of everything in your life you are grateful to have, all the things that bring a smile to your face. It can be something as big or as small as you like. The majority of the stuff on my list ended up being the people I have, because let’s face it, people make our lives much greater than any material object ever could.
2. Focus your energy on the things you have, not what you don’t.
Now that you have a list of everything you are grateful to have, start focusing your time and energy on those things. Anything you are striving to attain in the future is not going to make you a happier person, it will just make you a different person. To constantly focus on what you don’t have isn’t healthy. It leads to a sense of dissatisfaction with your current life, and once you get to that thing in the future you will just move on to the next thing you don’t have.You will only find contentment when you start enjoying and pursuing what you are happy with now.
Happy with your momma? Then go out to lunch with her, invite her over for fancy tea, or go to the movies together. Thankful to have a warm and cozy bed to sleep in every night instead of a box in an alleyway? Then snuggle up with your pillow and under your covers, and recognize how blessed you are to have it. Love the hot meal you get to eat every night (or cold if you like eating cereal)? Then enjoy every bite, instead of just mindlessly tearing through it as you watch TV. Start actively enjoying what you have and who you have no matter how big or small they may be. Live and breath in the moment you are living. Notice what is going on around you. Talk and laugh with the people you come across. Even in the bad situations there is always something to be gained, knowledge and wisdom.
3. Cut out negative thinking.
Every time you have a thought about something you are unhappy with or a complaint, write it down. I’m not telling you to do this so you can dwell and stew over all the horrible things in your life, but so you can identify the negative thoughts you are having daily and catch them in your spider web (notepad) and squash them (or karate chop them into pieces, whatever you prefer)!
To squash it (or karate chop) you can either embrace the hand you were dealt and find something good in it, or you can do something about it. That’s it. Constantly dwelling on something you dislike over and over again does nothing but give you a sour attitude and discontentment. Nothing is ever do or die. The bad things we are worried about usually pass by much more easily than we imagined in our head without all the explosions and certain doom we expected, and the things we are miserable about are only made more miserable than they actually are by the thoughts we have.
There are plenty of things we could all complain about, but what’s the point if you’re not going to do anything about it? There are plenty of good things we could choose to focus on instead, like the fact that your kitten has the cutest little paws in the history of ever, or that your best friend just gave you the rest of her lunch, or that you laughed until you peed just a little bit with your Aunt Mildred. Start making a gratitude list every week of the things you’re thankful to have or the moments that made you smile. There is no point in thinking about the negative aspects of your life and all the things you don’t have unless you are actively working towards squashing them. Instead dwell on and enjoy the things you are glad to have.
4. Give to others.
Joy comes when you aren’t constantly trying to make yourself happy, but instead are trying to give a little happiness to someone else. When you focus on other people instead of yourself all the time, your mind will have less time to come up with reasons to say “woe is me!” You will be helping combat the world of misery and negativity, but the magical part is that you will unintentionally be starting in yourself.
What would make you happier, if you gave yourself a cookie or if someone else gave you a cookie? Either way you’ve got a cookie, but if you gave it to yourself, well that wouldn’t mean very much to you. You would just get to enjoy the cookie. But if someone else gave it to you, then you would get to enjoy the cookie and the fact that someone else thought of you. The person who gave you the cookie would also feel good, because they would see and feel the happiness that they gave to you. Do you see how much joy can be brought into the world by someone giving away one cookie compared to just keeping it for themselves? Can you tell I really like cookies? If you want some ideas on how to bring a little joy into someone else’s life, then you can read my post on 20 Ways to Brighten Someone’s Day.
5. Have a lot of Jesus.
If there’s any ingredient that’s the most important part of the recipe for contentment, this is it. It’s like the flour to the bread. We try quenching our thirst from the well of objects, movies and books, careers, moments, addictions, even people, but they always leave our throats itching for more. There is only one source of figurative water that will never leave you wanting more, and that’s God. He is the everlasting source of contentment. Every time we try to turn to the things or moments in this world, we find ourselves always wanting more, because that sense of contentment lasts for about five seconds. With God we are never starved from contentment and true joy. It’s when we turn away from Him that our throats run dry. If you don’t know where to start with God, there is a great free online Bible study called Agape Bible Studies that you can sign up for, and you never have to leave your house.
This list is not a magical pill that will make you content for the rest of your life. The pursuit of contentment is a DAILY battle. Some days we let ourselves lose. I do way more than I would like. Those are the days that I only focus inward. I don’t live in the happy moments and people I have, I let negative thoughts creep into my mind, I am stingy with my time and annoyed at anyone who infringes on it, I ignore God all day, and I just don’t take action on anything. They are the days that I sit alone in a room and drown myself in books or movies, whatever I can find to distract me, but we have to stop distracting ourselves with temporary happiness and open our eyes. Every day we have to take up our swords and slash through all the monsters that jump out at us as we travel down our path of life. Contentment is a choice, not a circumstance.