Contentment is my jam.
It wasn’t always though. Time was, happiness was my jam. Or maybe it was the other way around and I assumed jam would make me happy. You see, I was throwing a fancy brunch for some friends and was too embarrassed to serve the boring grape jelly I had in the fridge. So I went to the store to get the “right” jam, one that was so elegant I could literally leave the entire jar out on the table and it’s fanciness would completely wow my guests.
That’s how I lost an hour of my life in the jam aisle. Did I want blueberry, strawberry, or raspberry? Blackberry or boysenberry? I paused and googled “boysenberry” (It’s a cross between a blackberry, raspberry, dewberry, and loganberry, but don’t ask me what a loganberry is because I didn’t look that up yet). There were three different jars of cranberry pear jam and two brands of pineapple jam. I read labels, tried to decode the difference between jam and preserves. And don’t even get me started on the seemingly endless array of marmalade options. I finally left, head spinning, overwhelmed and exhausted and totally jam-less. That weekend, I threw the Welch’s out on the table and no one blinked an eye. They were only there for the biscuits anyway.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with searching for happiness. I thought the right jam would make me happy. But there is no right jam. It’s about learning to be content with the Welch’s already in the fridge.
If you enter the word “happiness” into the Google search bar, you get over 900,000,000 results. The same search in Amazon nets over 100,000 books. There are countless podcasts and websites devoted to the topic. It would seem that humans are hardwired to seek happiness. The Declaration of Independence actually tells us it’s our fundamental right.
Maybe that’s our problem. In theory, happiness seems pretty damn attractive. It’s a high. But pleasure and joy are so quickly followed by the let down, which leads invariably to our relentlessly chasing the happiness drug again. It’s a carousel we can’t get off.
Happiness is a myth, ephemeral and only experienced in direct juxtaposition to sadness. We can only feel the high by comparing it to the low.
What we should be chasing is contentment.
We often conflate contentment and happiness, assume they mean the same thing. But they can singularly exist. Happiness comes and goes. Contentment accepts both happiness and equally accepts the lack of happiness.
Contentment is the lifeblood of a well-lived life. The Yoga Sutras is a sacred yoga guide from 400 C.E. about how to live your best life. One of the directives from this ancient text is called santosha, or active contentment. It’s a state of calm pleasure without disruptive desires. It’s an abiding feeling of peace that is unruffled by whatever is happening right now. Active contentment also assumes it’s a choice, a conscious effort to find fulfillment and meaning.
True contentment is an enigma. We cannot date it, buy it, marry it, or get promoted to it. We have to work for it but we cannot pursue it (sorry Thomas Jefferson).
Consider my cat. We adopted Cat Stevens, our fat tuxedo, from the animal shelter. The vet guessed she was around two years old when Quisenberry Lane became her Forever Home, so she came with some emotional baggage that she was unable to share with us. Stevie loves attention, but it has to be on her terms. If you lean down to pet her or (god forbid) try to catch her, she yowls and scampers off, hiding under the stairs for hours on end. But if you are patient and sit quietly down near her, she will, in time, approach you and climb into your lap.
That’s how contentment works. We have to create the space for it to show up, but we cannot force it to happen.
This is where the hard work comes in. Humans aren’t hardwired to be content. Rather, we always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. We believe ourselves to always be just on the precipice of happiness.
Our brains are Teflon for positive experiences and Velcro for negative ones. It’s so, so human to see the moment as an inconvenience. But peace lies in choosing to be content with what we already have and who we already are. We must choose to override initial feelings of annoyance or judgment with grateful assessment and balanced perspective.
Because if you cannot learn to be satisfied with this moment (or this jam), no amount of money or fame or beauty or material possessions will fill your heart hole. Biology created us to be dissatisfied; contentment must be practiced through mindful living.
Pass the Welch’s please.