The Philosophy of Contentment

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

How many of us can say that we want nothing in our lives to be different? Not forward, not backward… That backward part being of particular challenge. If prompted, we could likely list countless things from our individual pasts that we wish would’ve been different. If you've ever had the thought, I wish this would’ve happened differently, or not at all, you're far from unique. Feel free to breathe a sigh of relief at that. But let’s talk about something that is unique: taking such ownership of and responsibility for your life that you truly wish nothing were different. How empowering is it to love your life? If there were ever a state worth desiring, this would be it—not just tolerating your life, but loving it; deeply believing that every experience, setback and triumph alike, was uniquely and meaningfully assigned to you. Seeing life this way is weighty and challenging and wonderful.

It’s also the definition of true contentment.

That’s extreme, you might think. Is it extreme? Or have we been conditioned to accept so much less? Unlike happiness, contentment is a word we can succinctly and singularly define. It’s essential that we draw this distinction between contentment and happiness, as happiness, by nature of it's ambiguity, comes in waves, only recognizable once its passed. Contentment is something we can immediately identify. You know right now whether or not you’re content.

Contentment is a sustained inner peace regardless of circumstance. Write it, cut it, paste it, save it—let this interpretation be ever present in your mind. It’s obvious when we don’t have this. We’re in a state of constant wrestling and turmoil, and nothing ever seems satisfying in and of itself. Also unlike happiness, the state of contentment does not depend on some external gain. But if I just had this, I’d be content. Nope. If this statement were true, the subsequent logic would then imply that, so long as you live, you’d literally need nothing else to be content. Imagine if we held ourselves accountable to this logic every time we considered even thinking this way. If I only got that promotion! That body! That house! That spouse! That trip! There will always be something else you’ll want. How long does the excitement of a new car really last, anyway? Or a new anything? Assets depreciate. Relationships stagnate. This dose of realism shouldn’t depress us, but rather, incite us to reach somewhere even deeper for our contentment.

Now, let’s take a moment to address something absolutely essential here. Acknowledging the circularity of this perpetual want is not meant to diminish the validity and necessity of goals, personal improvement, and changing or leaving negative situations. If anything, this idea of loving our state allows us the mental freedom to pursue these goals, as our minds aren't muddied with frustrated thoughts of what we're lacking or wanting. Get that job. Buy that house. Make that money. The critical error, though, is in expecting those things, or anything, to fulfill a so-called “contentment void.” For it is only your own self who can fill it. Many a depressed soul were married and lived in mansions. Many a depressed soul did “what they loved” for a living, and were ever-depressed still. Comedians, actors, musicians… The story of people who spend their lives bringing joy to others yet tragically die at their own hands has become all-too common.

Brace yourself for an uncommon sentiment: doing what you love is not the end-all be-all. Doing what you love won’t save you. There will inevitably be days when you wake up and the last thing you feel like doing is that thing you “love.” The touring musician needs a day off, as does the motivational speaker, and also the nurse. This isn't ironic—it just comes with being human. We ebb and we flow. You must absolutely have an end goal in place, and you should absolutely do what you enjoy as much as you possibly can. But even more than loving what you do, you have to love just being. Being is wonderful and miraculous and we’ve become all-too lackluster about it. Trillions of cells came together and formed you. Specifically, you. Why would we dishonor the miracle that is our existence by deciding to be discontent?

Yes—I said decide.

“But the person who is blessed by good fortune is the one who has assigned a good lot to himself; and a good lot consists of this, good dispositions of the soul, good impulses, and good actions.” -Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius always tends to put it rightly. We must assign a good lot to ourselves. If we make the mistake that’s so commonly made of assuming contentment to be synonymous with happiness, we’ll never be able to just, be. True contentment is being okay with just being. It doesn’t mean that your goals diminish in value, nor does it mean you’re excused from improving your situation. It means that you are at peace with what has been, what is, and what will be, all while knowing that much of life is in your control. 

Contentment is twofold, and our achievement of it requires that we fully understand both halves. The first part of it being—what is the alternative? Discontentment. Frustration. And at its worst, apathy. Do we want to feel these things? If not, why would we then choose to feel them? In The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday puts it poignantly when he says the following:

“We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good? … If the event must occur, Amor fati (a love of fate) is the response."

That last sentence is vital—if the event must occur, a love of fate is the response. For how else are we to survive?

By now you may have picked up on the common philosophical thread woven throughout this blog—stoicism. In it’s simplest and most necessary form, stoicism is a philosophy based on the transcendence of destructive emotions; the utmost ideal being to transcend so successfully that one never even feels discontent, but worthy-still is encountering the emotion but quickly moving forward. And that brings us to the second part of achieving contentment: acknowledging the source of the discontent and wasting no time in doing something about it, if indeed something can be done.

“…if you are distressed because you are failing to accomplish some particular action which strikes you as sound, why do you not persist in the action rather than yield to the distress?” -Marcus Aurelius

Persist in what needs to happen, or yield to the distress. When it comes to facing frustrating circumstances, these are our options. Are there things that are completely out of our control and worthy of stirring up true discontent (at least for a time)? Absolutely, and the key is in knowing whether or not the source is a thing you can impact. Spoiler alert: if it's not, then the impact you make must be on your mind. In truth, we are never not responsible for our perspective. 

Let’s address a key distinction: contentment does not mean that you’re unreasonably “happy-cheery-skippy” every single day, all day. It certainly can manifest itself in that way, and may even be a worthy goal, but if we confuse contentment with a 24/7 outwardly cheerful disposition, we’ve lost its meaning and set ourselves up for failure in achieving it.

Contentment doesn’t mean you’ll leap out of bed each morning craving the day, but it frees you to. An inner peace impenetrable by outside forces means that in spite of anything, you can be cheery, if you want to. This should release you to feel however it is you need to feel, while being deeply grounded by an ultimately immovable peace. Contentment, thus, in its purest expression, is a state we decide to live in. And a state this imperturbable is a philosophy worth pursuing.