by Leo Babauta
To finish off this book, I’d like to answer some questions submitted by you, my wonderful readers. They are excellent questions!
The first section seems to be the greatest concern for most people on the topic of contentment — contentment vs. self- improvement, or contentment vs. complacency. I understand this concern, as it was one of the things I debated in my own head as I started to explore contentment. I’ll address those related questions first, and then get to the others below.
Contentment vs. Complacency or Self- Improvement
1. How does being content in life fit in with the human need to grow and help?
Leo: The need to grow and help doesn’t go away if you learn to be content with yourself and your life. For example, I am content with who I am, but I also love learning new things. It’s not necessary to be discontent with yourself or life in order to love learning new things. Same goes with helping other people. In fact, in my experience, you are more likely to help other people and have fun learning new things if you are content with who you are.
2. I’ve been wondering about how you balance the art of contentment with wanting to improve yourself and your life. It seems to me that some people (most people?) almost need a certain amount of dissatisfaction in order to be able to make changes … but I’m sure there is a balance to be found there. Would love to hear your take.
Leo: Actually, the dissatisfaction turns out to be unnecessary. I think we all believe that change can only come from a place of being unhappy with how things are, but it turns out that’s not true at all. Contentment and change are not mutually exclusive. An example:
3. I’ve been a student of Zen for over 25 years so I definitely understand the value of contentment and living now vs. always striving and churning, but I also understand that there is no such thing as standing still. How do you keep contentment from turning to complacency and back sliding? I know that I do it by oscillating from achievement and improvement to periods of enjoying life as it is. The problem is that I tend to get stuck in one mode or the other for extended periods of time. Any advice?
Leo: There’s definitely a fine-tuning of finding balance, but I suggest combining the two modes — achievement/ improvement and enjoying life as it is. They are completely compatible with each other. Enjoy life as it is, which includes the desire to help people (which can drive achievement) and the love of learning (which can drive improvement). You don’t have to put off enjoying life right now in order to love helping people or love learning (or love other things that might drive achievement or improvement). It’s true that achievement/ improvement can be driven by dissatisfaction, but it’s not mandatory.
4. Many people would say contentment is a nicer word for mediocrity. Is it?
Leo: No, that comes from a misunderstanding of what contentment is. It’s not being lazy and doing nothing. It’s being happy and enjoying what you’re doing, which can include doing good work.
5. How do you uncouple contentment from complacency? Contentment is wonderful – complacency is dangerous.
Leo: Having a commitment to people helps a lot. For example, I have a commitment to my readers to helping and being trustworthy and delivering articles of a certain standard (in my mind at least). I can be content but still want to fulfill that commitment, and also to maintain our relationship with each other. Those are good things, and you can do them even if you’re content.
6. Balance is a big one. Present contentment vs. future goals. What makes your loved ones happy vs. what makes you happy.
Leo: Contentment can be present during all the other stuff — it doesn’t exclude goals or making others happy. For example, I can be content with myself and my life but still want to help others, and so my future goal can be to build new schools in Southeast Asia. My goal is driven by a love of helping, rather than a lack of contentment. Making others happy can happen at the same time as being happy myself, so they aren’t exclusive. But yes, finding a balance between different activities is always something we’ll work with, even if we find contentment.
7. IMHO contentment is contrary to the human condition. We have an innate desire for more. Maslow described this in his hierarchy of needs model. We are never truly content until we reach self actualization. Take the example of the rich 1% movie stars. Although they have no struggle for material things most are never content. In fact, many are miserable and resort to drugs and other addictions in an attempt to satisfy. I guess your book will address how to be content with what we have already.
Leo: It’s definitely contrary to our cultural condition. But many people around the world, in poor conditions and in what we would call “tribal” conditions, have been found to be content, so it’s hard to argue that it’s contrary to the human condition. Sure, it’s hard to be content if you don’t have the first few levels of Maslow’s hierarchy fulfilled. But the truth is there is no prerequisite for contentment — you always have the raw materials for it, which is your mind. You only need to appreciate what’s inside you, and all around you, and that can be done no matter where you are or what your life circumstances are.
Other Great Questions
1. How do you neutralize FOMO? (fear of missing out)?
Leo: Great question! Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is at the heart of what contentment is. When we fear missing out, what are we really worried about? We are afraid that we’re not going to be a part of something important/exciting/fun/etc. This stems from an ideal in our heads: that we can be a part of everything important, exciting and fun. Of course, this is not ever true; it’s only a fantasy. When we realize this, we can instead turn our attention to what’s in front of us — what we have, who we are, what we’re doing, who we’re with. These things are amazing, and we only need to appreciate them to be content. This is the same process that we use to fight other fears and dissatisfaction.
2. What about contentment when your significant other/spouse/partner/family member is generally not content? How to deal with others’ discontent, or how to not let their discontent influence your aim to be content?
Leo: It is difficult, but definitely a skill worth learning. Honestly, I’m still learning myself, but what little I’ve learned has helped tremendously. See the chapters titled, “Our Reactions to the Actions of Others” and “Don’t Tie Your Self- Worth to Others’ Actions,” and learn to focus on your reaction to your spouse or family member’s words or actions toward you. You can work with your reaction, no matter what their actions are. Another way to shift your focus in this situation is to focus on compassion for the other person — they are discontent, which means they are suffering. You definitely know what that’s like, and it’s not fun. So be compassionate, empathize with their suffering, and see if there’s a way you can help (without being patronizing, of course).
3. How do you respond to people who push you to do more, get more, be more when you are content with who and where you are?
Leo: Smile, and give them a hug. What we have to learn is that no matter how content we’ve learned to be, there will always be people who expect us to act differently, who push us or get angry with us or make us feel guilty. That’s OK. That’s the way of the world, and we can never change that. The only thing we can change is how we handle it. So I suggest learning to empathize with these people, smile, and give them a hug. It might not change how they try to push us, but it might, and more importantly, we have changed our reaction to them.
4. Sometimes I think we live in a world of too many choices. I also think the average person’s relentless pursuit of all things material can foster this idea of people never knowing the idea/concept of contentment.
Leo: Two great concepts in one question! First, too many choices is a definite challenge — it helps to have some principles to guide you, like the principle of compassion and helping others, the principle of curiosity, the principle of building relationships. But even then, you’ll be uncertain about choices, and the idea is to be OK with the uncertainty (it’s a great part of life), and just choose, and let go of the worry you made the right choice (it doesn’t help). There’s never going to be a certainty that you made the right choice. You can only try it, see what happens, and learn. So put away the menu after you’ve ordered, forget about it, and you’ll be happier.
Second, the relentless pursuit of material things … yes, it can get in the way of understanding or even contemplating contentment. Corporations intentionally make us dissatisfied with our lives or ourselves in some way, so that we’ll buy their solution (a car, new shoes, a new gadget). And so we’re always pursuing some dream of material happiness, when obviously that doesn’t work, and it never ends. It’s a fantasy. We think we need all of that to be happy, but it doesn’t make us happy. Instead, we can be happy right now, with what we already have.
5. I simply find it a challenge to remember to be content with what I’ve got. Once I remember it is easier.
Leo: Definitely. So how do we remember to be content? It’s a mental habit, which can be difficult to form or change. The main way we change a mental habit like this is simply repeated practice. You try today, then forget, then review what happened and realize you forgot, then try again. The repeated trying comes from a commitment — to yourself, but also to others. For example, I told my kids that I am trying to be more mindful as a parent, and compassionate when I talk to them — things I can often forget. They now know that I’m doing this, and are watching me, and that helps me to remember. Also, have reminders. Set a reminder for a gratitude session, which can include a review of what you did that day related to contentment.
6. How do you deal with other people’s expectations? I’m a stay at home mum and very happy to be able to spend that time with my two-year old son. People constantly ask me when I am going to start working. It seems like the “normal” thing to do. Truly, I’m content to keep things as they are, but expectations from other people leave me feeling guilty.
Leo: It’s incredibly important that we learn to deal internally with other people’s expectations, because those will always be there, no matter what we do. We could try to conform with their expectations, but even then, there would be other expectations we aren’t meeting, and who wants to conform with everyone else’s expectations? So we need to let go of the ideal of everyone approving of what we’re doing, because it’s unachievable. Instead, work internally with this, let go of it, and appreciate the greatness of what you’re doing and who you are. You then have the approval you want — your own, not other people’s.
Lastly, this is also an opportunity to educate people — when they express concern for you, thank them, and then have a conversation about what you’re doing and why. It’s incredible that they are worried about you — they care! And so you should be grateful for that, but also engage them so that they are moved toward an understanding of what you’re doing. It’s a long process, so in the meantime, be content and smile.
7. How to be happy with the work-life balance?
Leo: This is a tough question because people often mean different things when they say “work-life balance.” As we know, work is a part of life, so segregating them is artificial and unnecessary. Often what people mean, though, is that they’re working too much, and want time for other things. And that’s totally legitimate, and you can do things like setting limits on work, making commitments to others (meeting a friend for a walk or run or hike, etc.), carving out time for meditation or yoga, signing up for music or language lessons, etc. But it’s also important to be content when you’re working, which you can absolutely do following the principles of this book.
8. I find it a challenge to have contentment with the knowledge I obtained and am frequently seeking more (books, movies, talks, researches) about the most varied subjects. How to have contentment with the knowledge you already have?
Leo: There are two kinds of knowledge seeking: the first is thinking you don’t know enough or don’t know the important things and so you need to go out and learn (fear of not reaching an ideal knowledge level, which is a fantasy), and the second is being content with what you know, but still being curious about other things, and appreciating your love for learning new things. I suggest the second. Letting go of the fantasy of an ideal knowledge level involves the same process as letting go of other fantasies, explained in this book.
9. Fundamentally, the difficulties with being content seem to be related to unfulfilled expectations and judgments. Simply put, things are different from what we want them to be. I understand that mindfulness meditation is the most powerful tool to learn to let go, fully appreciate present moment and be content and grateful. Having said that, it seems that it takes a relatively long time to be established in mindfulness firmly enough, so it will generate contentment. It would be really helpful if you could recommend additional practices that are compatible with mindfulness, to work on cultivating contentment more directly.
Leo: Mindfulness is important because it’s a prerequisite to working with the ideals and expectations and judgments and comparisons that we always have in our heads, all day long. Unfortunately, we’re almost never aware of this process, and so we need to learn to be aware, which is what mindfulness is. We need to turn our attention inward to work with this process. You can do this with meditation or yoga, or you can simply create reminders to pay attention to your thought processes, and turn inward at various times in the day, until you learn to be more mindful of these processes without the reminders.
10. My problem is GUILT, when I feel content with myself these are experiences usually related to very private moments of self discovery, very hard to explain and share with my loves ones, for whom I look detached. I’ve found ways to deal with this with my kids and husband, gradually gaining private moments from where I return in peace. But for other relatives and friends I’m consistently ungrateful and distant. To fulfill that need of contentment, in my case, I need a lot of private time, and is fantastic, I’ve taking most of my 40 years blind to my own needs. But, hurts that my father, sister, cousins and friends see me as an alien. Guilt prevents me from exploring deeper in paths I know are for me.
Leo: Great question. While private time is amazing, perhaps you can shift how you are when you’re with other people, so you don’t seem distant and ungrateful. Contentment doesn’t preclude warmth and compassion and gratitude — in fact, I think they go well together. So work privately on contentment, but when you’re with others, engage with them, pay attention, and show gratitude.
11. How do you find contentment while grieving? And I don’t mean the initial grief that comes with the shock of a loss, I mean the slow burn of grief that follows in the months and years after. I feel complacent and resigned now, but any sense of joy or contentment feels fleeting.
Leo: Really important and challenging stuff. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. However, it’s useful to look at the inner process that’s happening here: Grief is the suffering that comes not from the external loss of someone or something, but from the internal loss of wanting your life to be a certain way (to have a certain someone in your life, for example). I’m not saying this to trivialize your loss or grief, but to show what we all do when we grieve. We are mourning the loss of an ideal, the loss of what we believed ourselves to be. If we can recognize this, we can let go of that ideal, because the truth is, there is no one thing our lives will be, no one self we’ll ever be. It’s always changing. Embrace that change, and see the good in it. It might seem horrible to imply that we should be happy that someone is gone (I’m not saying that), but it’s important to be able to embrace the changes in life (and changes of self). So one person is not in our lives anymore, which is sad, but that’s an opportunity to reinvent our lives and ourselves, to find out what we’re like in this new changed reality. Again, this is difficult stuff, but really powerful to learn, because in truth it happens all the time, on different levels.
12. How to remain content despite past bad decisions which consequences you have to live with for the rest of your life? Some kind of bad decisions you can’t leave behind because you have to face them every day and affect your day-by-day.
Leo: There will always be bad decisions, and their consequences — we can’t ever get rid of them or change them. The only thing we can change is our mindset toward them, our reactions to them. So one way to look at bad decisions is that it’s all part of the learning process, which is a good thing. We want to learn, and making mistakes is part of how we really learn something. Embrace mistakes as part of this great process. Another way to look at the consequences of your past decisions: They are just external stimulus, and they are only bad because we are comparing them to an ideal (we should have done better, which of course is a fantasy because we didn’t). If we realize this, we can let go of the ideal (it’s hurting us), and instead, focus on appreciating what’s right in front of us.
13. I’ve always questioned on exactly how to achieve that level of greatness [Note from Leo: I believe this question is referencing my post about Warren Buffett, who is considered one of the greatest investors in history.]. Is it by surrounding yourself around other successful people? By being friendly? How would I be able to find contentment in an area where peace is hard to come across due to the ego differences between other people. Here in New York City, in Queens, people seem paranoid; and closed off to other people. Then the people who talk to other people are labeled as “crazy” or some other label; then at times people remain closed off because it seems like people don’t want life experience.
Leo: Surrounding yourself with positive people who will support you, inspire you, hold you accountable for the changes you’re making … this definitely helps. Building relationships and trust, being trustworthy, genuinely wanting to help other people, getting good at what you do . those also help.
Regarding being in an environment where people are closed off to each other, and where you’d stick out for being friendly, this can be difficult. You can change your environment (for example, I moved my family from Guam to San Francisco, for many reasons), or you can build up a support network online, where you’re not limited by the people who are physically around you. I believe that if you’re friendly and compassionate and helpful, you’ll also find other people like that in your neighborhood, even if most people judge you (that’s OK).
14. I’m wondering about how to find contentment in this busy time as a student before final exams. To be content with hard decisions of choosing to leave the loved ones and go study abroad or to stay and study local …
Leo: You can be busy and content. Contentment is just a happiness with yourself and your life, and so you can feel this as you study and take exams, even if you’re busy. Making hard decisions will always be hard, even if you’re content. The trick is to be content with the decision after you make it, and let go of worry that you made the wrong choice, while paying attention and seeing how the choice is working out, learning about yourself in the process.
15. How to let it be okay . when things are “okay”. (Have issues with allowing life to be smooth … rocky has been the norm for so very long it’s become my bff.)
Leo: We fall into mental habits, like wanting excitement or emotional “drama,” or equating happiness and excitement, and when you do something like that for so long it becomes normal. It’s good that you recognize this, because many people don’t. However, we can let go of those mental habits, with awareness and practice. When things are OK, focus on
yourself expecting rockiness, watch this, and then focus again on appreciating what you have. It takes repeated practice.