by Leo Babauta
Before we get to the practical steps, let’s talk about contentment and change. Many people think that if you’re content, you’re just going to lay around doing nothing all day. Why do anything if you’re content with the way things are? How does contentment mesh with self-improvement?
But contentment actually is a much better place from which to start making changes (self-improvement) than an unhappiness with who you are.
Most of us are driven by the need or desire to improve ourselves, to fix certain things about ourselves that we don’t like. While that can definitely be a place for driving some changes, it’s not a good place to start from with those kinds of changes.
If you feel there’s something wrong with you that needs to be improved, you’re going to be driven to improve yourself, but you may or may not succeed. Let’s say you fail in your habit change. Then you start to feel worse about yourself, and you’re then on a downward spiral, where every time you try to improve, you fail, and so you feel worse about yourself, and so on. You start to sabotage your changes, because you really don’t believe that you can do them. Based on past evidence, you don’t trust yourself that you can do it. And that makes you feel worse.
That’s if you fail. But let’s say you happen to succeed, and you’re really good at succeeding. So maybe you lose weight, and then maybe you don’t feel as bad about your body now.
But what happens is, if you start with the mindset of fixing what’s wrong with you, it doesn’t end once you have a successful change. You keep looking for what else is wrong with you, what else you need to improve. Maybe now feel like you don’t have enough muscles, or nice enough abs, or you think your calves don’t look good, or if it’s not about your body, you’ll find something else.
So it’s this never-ending cycle for your entire life. You never reach it. If you start from a place of wanting to improve yourself and feeling stuck, even if you’re constantly successful and improving, you’re always looking for happiness from external sources. You don’t find the happiness from within so you look to other things.
If you’re externally looking for happiness, it’s easy to get too into food, or shopping, or partying, or overwork, to try to be happy.
If instead you can find contentment within and not need external sources of happiness, you’ll have a reliable source of happiness. I find that to be a much better place to be.
A lot of people wonder, “If you find contentment, won’t you just lay on the beach, not improving the world, not doing anything?” But I think that’s a misunderstanding of what contentment is.
You can be content and lay around, but you can also be content and want to help others. You can be content and also compassionate to others, and want to help them. You can be happy with who you are, but at the same time want to help other people and ease their suffering. And that way, you can offer yourself to the world and do great works in the world, but not necessarily need that to be happy.
Even if for some reason, your work was taken away from you, you’d still have that inner contentment.
Think about the things about yourself that you want to change. Then see if, instead, you can find things about yourself you’re really happy with.