We often hear the phrase “man’s search for meaning” but, of almost equal prominence, is man’s quest for contentment. In fact, these two searches are inextricably linked. The search for meaning has its origin in natural anxiety; the compelling feeling to discover answers to the unanswerable questions that make life feel worthwhile. This is, really, a search for contentment- freedom from worry about the future and from regrets about the past, a sense of having enough in the present moment. While there may never be a suitable answer in man’s search for meaning, there are ways to experience contentment and live the good life.
Like any achievable goal in life, small habits are the most effective tool in cultivation of growth. There is not a checklist to complete to feel content, but there are practices that can be absorbed and applied in daily life to grow a contentment-mindset. In a satisfied life, there are two crucial components that can be found: gratitude and a sense of being cared for.
Gratitude can be cultivated by finding an inner sense of having enough. In the consumerism and “meritocracy” of the United States, the idea of having enough seems unmotivating and unproductive. “Having enough,” in this thought process, is the antithesis of ambition, a cessation of forward motion. This fundamental misunderstanding of human nature permeates the culture at large: more, newer, faster is inherently better.
But it’s not.
When given a real opportunity to stop and reflect, most people want the same things out of life: security, more time with their family, basic essentials, rest. It’s intuitively part of the human experience; culture tries to subvert and manipulate it but, at our core, we know the truth that connects us. Taking a step back, then, and reflecting sows the seed of gratitude: Am I safe? Do I have enough food for my next meal? Do I have clothes and shelter?
The answer to these questions is not yes for everyone. In that dissonance, gratitude is found. “It is possible to not have what every human craves, but I do, and that is enough.” Flipping the script on endless growth and shifting focus to the essentials in life are the building blocks to gratitude. Remembering the ways in which you are privileged and letting that knowledge seep into your inner being is one component of contentment— and builds humility and cooperativeness.
The other critical component of contentment is a sense of being cared for. Psychologist Abraham Maslow demonstrated this through his Hierarchy of Needs, with the first two layers being the physiological needs and the next being love and belonging (“A Theory of Human Motivation,” 1943). There are some issues with Maslow’s formulation, but its ubiquity in the American consciousness makes it a useful starting point. Maslow indicates that needs are like a pyramid, and only once each layer is filled can the next be considered, from basics like food and water at the bottom to self-actualization at the top.
Contentment can follow this same hierarchy: gratitude for security and basic needs, leading to a deep understanding of a sense of belonging. Think of friends, family members, your partner. Ask yourself: “Am I aware that there are people who care about me?” In that awareness, the social needs instilled at the core of our humanity are met, and seeking out more will not meet them extra. There, along with gratitude, is where contentment lives.
You have reached contentment if you can say: I have everything I need, right here, right now. I am safe, I am provided for, I am loved. I have enough.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry