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5 Facts That Can Help You Be More Content

Closing the gap between how things are and how you want them to be,


1. Contentment occurs when there is very little difference between the way things are and the way we want things to be.

The core business of life is to make sure the way we experience the world matches up to the way we want to experience it. Making things be the way we want them to be is what we do all day, every day, from before our first breath until our last. This fundamental idea applies to simple, short-term things such as getting the cup of coffee we want or driving our car at the speed we prefer, and it also applies to more complicated, longer-term things such as building the family life we want or creating the sense of meaning and purpose we want. We all have a myriad of little units that each perceives a specific aspect of the world that is important to us, compares that aspect of how the world is to how we want it to be, and acts to keep the difference small. These perceive/compare/act units are always on and are generally pretty good at keeping the differences small. Sometimes, however, a difference might be unusually large or might continue for an unusually long period of time without being reduced. These are the times we experience discontent, and restoring contentment involves focusing on where the difference is great and finding ways to reduce it. Contentment is available to all of us by the way we construct and maintain our own internal landscape.

2. The right contentment recipe for one person might not be the right recipe for another.

From the time we are born we have our own unique set of preferences, standards, and values. At a general level we could say that we all want and need the same kinds of things—food and shelter, for example, as well as physical and emotional warmth. Beyond the general, however, our preferences for how much of any particular want or need is right for us can vary markedly. Different people prefer different food and amounts of food and also prefer different dwellings. And people vary in the amount of emotional closeness they need. It’s as though we all have our "dials" set slightly differently so the profiles and contours of our own internal landscapes will all be as unique as each snowflake. Have you ever spent a family evening in front of the television but people had different ideas about what watch or how loud the volume should be? Have you ever been in a meeting in which some people wanted the air conditioning turned up (or down) while others thought it was just right? Even babies have varied preferences for how fed they like to be or how cuddled they like to feel. These differences are a fact of nature and, by and large, should be honored and enjoyed. For example, when children in school express differences in the amount of stimulation they prefer, this doesn’t mean they need medication. It could mean they would do a whole lot better if they were able to get from the environment the stimulation they prefer. Contentment is achievable by getting to know our own personal preferences and standards, making friends with these benchmarks, and giving them what they need.

3. We can’t set someone else’s standards for them.

At times it might seem as though we know what someone else should be doing but, in truth, no one knows enough about the internal organization of another to suggest a particular course of action that will ensure all their internal dials will be at their right settings. People can offer advice and suggestions but it is only the individual who can tell if any particular strategy has the desired effect. In some ways it would be much simpler if we could just reach in and make the adjustments we thought were necessary, but this is impossible. Contentment is something that must be individually achieved and experienced. Other people can help but, at the end of the day, only each individual knows what is right from their perspective. By and large, when people are discontent, they need time, support, and encouragement to get back to the path they were on. Contentment occurs when people find the combination of standards, goals, and attitudes that are right for them.

4. The goals we set will have a large bearing on how achievable and lasting contentment is.

All of our internal standards, references, and benchmarks could be thought of as goals. The temperature we keep our body at is a goal, arriving to work on time is a goal, being honest with friends is a goal, and visiting Aunt May each Sunday afternoon is a goal. Some of our goals are about other people. If the goals we set for other people don’t take into account the fact that those other people also have their own goals which could be different from what we have in mind, problems are likely to follow. A common source of discontent is when other people don’t conform to the goals we have for them. I might have a goal for how tidy my son should keep his room but if tidying up his room interferes with goals that he has (listening to music or catching up with friends or spending time on the computer) he’ll likely object in various ways. His priority is to achieve his goals, not mine, just as my priority is achieving my goals, not his. In fact, even people who spend great amounts of time helping others or working tirelessly for charity are doing these things to satisfy their own goals about the type of person they want to be. Helping another person means helping them achieve their goals. Contentment is easier to achieve and maintain when realizing our goals does not require that we interfere with the goals of others.

5. Conflict between goals is an important source of discontent.

By far, the most common source of discontent is internally conflicting goals. Having a goal to become a CEO of a large, multinational company and also having a goal to build close family relationships is likely to cause tension and stress. There will be occasions when the demands of building a successful career will interfere with family relationships and vice versa. Staying late at work to meet important deadlines will mean missing out on the warmth and camaraderie of family dinner time. Committing to watch your daughter’s softball championship could mean missing an important meeting where a contract has to be signed. Whenever we feel stressed and unable to achieve certain things, there may be incompatible goals. Taking the time to identify them, and the common, important elements of both, will help to resolve conflict and restore contentment. Resolving internal conflict is one of the keys to lasting contentment.

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