The Slow Creep of Discontentment

I’ve always been a goal setter. Even from an early age I would put together a list of things I wanted or experiences to try. I really enjoy the art of self-examination in almost all facets of life. Gurus like to expound upon the necessitation of creating goals and striving for the impossible. But what happens when you reach the basic ones? Sure, you could rinse and repeat, but where does it actually get us? Does it make us happier? Does more achievement, stuff, or money bring us any closer to contentment? Or does the very nature of our marketing-consumer driven economy suggest that there is always something slightly better?

bali-254077_1280I see it happen in the mirror. My life is pretty awesome. I have a wonderful wife, beautiful and intelligent kids, a paid off home, a new car, a fancy education, and a nice job. We live in a safe and peaceful county and we have the ability to spend time with close friends and family- even travel the world if we’d like. On paper, most of us have it all. In fact, I would venture to stay that most SE readers are pretty well positioned too. But, despite all of our blessings, contentment can still be elusive. A fancier house, a better school, a bigger or a prettier something. Even a few more dollars on the balance sheet. No matter where we are, there always seems to be something slightly shinier, just a little out of reach. Discontentment (even among the well off) reigns.

More Money, More Problems?
I think life was easier when I didn’t have a lot of money. I’ve never been poor but I’ve been through periods of life where I had little disposable income. And I certainly can compare the ways my life has changed as our family has begun to accumulate a little bit of wealth and (with it) plenty of opportunities, options, and choices. And I’m not really sure I’m good at handling it. With money comes more choices. Maybe paradoxical choices. Situations where making the wrong choice seems to carry more weight. The fear of making the wrong choice seems to increase along with all of our options.

Having greater opportunities, but settling for what you have, is a difficult mental challenge to complete. How do you remain content in a modest house when you can afford a huge one? How do you stay satisfied if your job is great but others could be better? How do you feel if you send your kids to a good school but not as fancy as the better one down the street? When all of your friends are striving for more, is it possible to settle for less and remain content? Or does discontentment begin to creep?

Examining Self-Control
Although I feel I have a strong internal locus of control, I still find myself searching for acceptance and validation from others. I also feel like I absorb the desires, struggles, passions, and excitements of the people I spend the most time with. But, one of the most pressing, and potentially saddening features that I observe in the middle/wealth class is a undefined since of discontentment.

Due to its undefined nature, discontentment can be hard to define and pinpoint. We rarely even notice or think about it. But we certainly see it’s manifestations in purchases, desires, internal restlessness, and envy. We’re told by marketers that spending more will solve our discontentment. If we just had that it will all be Ok. But the truth is, cars will rust, our bodies will get older, and that fancy house will feel normal after a year or two.

It seems one of the common denominators for progress is discontentment. Many people I know work really hard to fill the gaps left by discontentment. I’m actually ok with working hard. I do it frequently. But, I think the end goal is really finding balance between achievement and contentment. In addition, the biggest issues are: Who are we trying to impress? and Are we spending enough time with the people who are actually important to us? Is it all worth it? Do our dissatisfactions cause misprioritization?

Being Happy
I feel like my goal should be, being “Happy”. I wish I wasn’t influenced (as much) by the people around me. Sometimes I wish I thought less about their perceptions of me. But I’m certainly aware of my surroundings. I’m not even sure where the boundary is between Success, Contentment, Striving, Potential, and Freedom. Although I consider myself to be pretty happy with my life, I still find myself occasionally wishing we had more of certain things. The specific items or experiences change, but the desires seem to constantly creep to the edge of my psyche. The “My life would be a little better if…” never seems to completely fade.

I’m in the process of considering trading freedom, simplicity, and time for money. The next stage of my life involves plenty of new choices. My life is sure to change but all the new opportunities are making it difficult to keep my life simple. It will take plenty of mental fortitude to craft a life that breeds contentment, instead of one on the treadmill of ever ending desire.

The War of Discontentment
So, how do you battle discontentment when it pervades all of your closest friends? See the world. Interact with people outside your comfort zone. Consciously spend more time with people who are content. You might even make a list of them. Most are probably a little older than you, and probably a little wiser too. Prioritize the relationships in life. Ride a bike. Prioritize time, energy and mental clarity. Be careful where you choose to live. One of the most useful, but difficult, is simply thinking in terms of gratitude instead of jealously and envy. In addition, turn off the TV and be careful what you put into your mind and body. Minimize advertisements of all kinds. We are in a constant battle between marketers who sell discontentment and enjoying the things that we already own and experience.

Keeping Life Simple Is Hard
Its hard. Society, your friends, your family, your coworkers, and your ideals push you to continually strive for more.  It’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes they want you to reach your potential. But try and take a minute to fully understand what your true motivations are. Are they driven by your internal-self or are your desires simply products of peer pressure and marketing that surrounds you.

Discontentment is contagious. And it becomes even more prevalent the more we earn.
Sometimes I feel the need to get out of the bubble of discontentment. For our family, it means we’ll probably spend some time serving or traveling to a less developed country. Sometimes its helpful to meet people who have much less and manage to be content. Sometimes it is good to turn off the TV for a little bit. Discontentment sells. And discontentment is contagious. But, contentment is contagious as well. Simplicity is hard, but it is worth striving for.

2 thoughts on “The Slow Creep of Discontentment

  1. Incredible piece. On par with your Zen and Art post from last year. Keep it coming!

  2. I like this viewpoint. I often worry if I’ve put my family in a place where they feel entitled to the comforts that we enjoy. I never want to place them at an emotional disadvantage later in life if they feel they need to achieve a certain lifestyle without understanding the steps it takes to get there. Less is more.