The Key to Contentment
How to find peace and acceptance — even when everything sucks.
Everyone around me has been stressed lately — the pandemic, the protests, the election. It’s a lot.
I’ve been reflecting on the subject of contentment. What is contentment? How can I be more content, despite everything going on in the world?
There’s a concept in the yogic traditions called “santosha” which I am finding helpful.
Santosha is a Sanskrit world that includes two parts: “sam” which means completely and “tosha” which means contentment or satisfaction. Put together the words convey not only “contentment” but also “acceptance”.
Santosha, as I understand it, is not about being mindlessly happy. It’s about finding happiness within, despite the circumstances, instead of relying on external factors to make you feel good.
This means instead of wallowing when things go bad, we look for the good in them, and the opportunities for growth.
It’s about seeing the silver lining.
We had a discussion in a yoga class about the concept of santosha that I remember well. We talked at length about the role of acceptance in practicing contentment and finding acceptance even when things are not perfect, and how difficult that can be.
For example, I have a disabling back condition and have been in some level of non-stop pain every single day since 1981. I spent a lot of time railing at the world about how unfair it was that I had this condition, why it happened and how I wished it could be different.
But over the last ten years or so I’ve just accepted it.
It sucks, for sure, but I can be content with it, because I’ve realized wishing to be pain-free isn’t going to happen. I make myself more miserable fighting against it.
The best I can do is to accept it, and do whatever I can do to not aggravate my condition. Coincidentally, yoga is one of those things that helps.
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. “ — Lao Tzu
Contentment is about accepting people and things as they are, and not dwelling on how you wish things should be. It’s about keeping a positive attitude when there are difficulties, and not letting your unfulfilled expectations of a person or situation cause you inner pain.
That’s the lesson of the pandemic in a nutshell.
We don’t like wearing masks. We miss going to parties and concerts and movies. We grieve when people get sick and we can’t comfort them in person. No one likes drive-through graduations or endless zoom calls or virtual happy hours.
But most of us accept that this is the way things are right now, and try to find happiness and contentment in the things we can. Things suck right now, but not everything sucks.
We need to focus on the positive things. The simple joy of playing with the pandemic pet we adopted. The delicious bread we’re making every week now that we’ve got time. The new hobbies we started. Time spent outdoors.
Contentment seems to come up a lot in thinking about weight loss and body image.
I think many of us have that experience where we look back at a picture of our younger selves and wish we’d been happy about our appearance when we were young and cute and thinner. We weren’t content with how we looked at the time where we probably looked the best we ever have.
Now we’re firmly in middle age or maybe we’ve put on some pandemic pounds.
We might find ourselves wishing our bodies weren’t sagging, or our stomach was smaller, or that there weren’t wrinkles around our eyes. Instead of accepting the inevitability of aging and its effect on our bodies, we continue to create unhappiness by engaging in self-criticism and railing against things we mostly can’t change.
How would things change if we practiced contentment and accepted that this is our body right now?
We bring a lot of misery and suffering on ourselves wishing things were different.
The idea of santosha isn’t that you should just BE content, it’s that you should PRACTICE contentment. It doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it, you have to seek it.
I find this idea of contentment and acceptance more difficult when it’s about accepting other people’s behavior.
We all have those things about other people that drive us crazy: the person who’s always late, the person who promises to keep a confidence and immediately blabs, the coworker or spouse who doesn’t do their share of the work, the person who lets you down again and again.
Here again is an opportunity for growth. As they say, you can’t change other people, you can only change how you respond to them. When we expect people to behave differently than they have in the past, we’re almost always disappointed.
Our work is to accept them as they are — we don’t have to like it, we just have accept them as flawed beings that we can’t change.
We give people emotional power over us and we give them space in our head, but we don’t have to do that. It’s not so much that the people create the stress for us, it’s that we allow ourselves to be stressed by people acting just as we know they are.
By practicing contentment we can cultivate patience and try to be neutral about their behavior. And if their behavior is truly egregious, or we really can’t get to a place where we can accept them as they are, then we need to make a change, not them.
We need to be responsible for our own contentment.
How can you cultivate more contentment in your life today?
Rose Bak is a freelance writer, author and yoga teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon. As a dedicated multipotentialite, she has a writes on a variety of topics including self-care, aging, inspiration, business, and pop culture. She is also a published author of romantic fiction.