Contentment is My Jam

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 its 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 on 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 let­down, 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 and assume they mean the same thing. But they can sin­gu­lar­ly exist. Happiness relies on hap­pen­ings; it 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).

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 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.

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