November 2020

Finding Contentment: A personal journey to joy

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

If there was an advantage of growing up poor, it was not knowing I was poor. You can’t long for or miss what you don’t know exists.

In the 1960s, at least in my world, shopping was a mission for necessities. Unlike today, when every possible object of desire is available at our fingertips, I wasn’t regularly exposed to retail temptation, and with no Google, Amazon or credit card account, impulse buying was a non-issue. Television ads were for dishwashing soap, cigarettes, and “living” bras, none of which held any interest. Stores were for basic needs like peanut butter and white bread or underwear and socks. The Sears catalogue was for dreaming and could double as toilet paper in an emergency.

As a child, I shopped for clothes at Rich’s bargain basement, where my grandmother worked and could get an even deeper discount. I had exactly five seasonal outfits for school that could be mixed and matched to look slightly different each week. I owned two pairs of shoes, purchased once a year at Payless: penny loafers for school and patent leather Mary Janes for church—and a pair of rubber galoshes for rainy days. I don’t remember being unhappy. I had exactly what I needed with no reason to want more. Innocence was a buffer against discontent.

I was in high school when I first began noticing what other people had that I lacked, triggering many painful emotions and lingering insecurities. College brought even more pressure to fit in, sowing seeds of self-doubt that would fester well into my adult years, driving a feverish effort to stack up.

The pursuit of happiness became a relentless race to more with no finish line in sight. Shopping became both entertainment and therapy, an instant rush and a soothing balm, leading to a desire to repeat the experience, much like any addiction.

I became obsessed with clothes and shoes, collecting until deciding what to wear was more of a chore than a pleasure. Recently, I got on a skincare and makeup kick, purchasing so many products I was having a hard time sorting out which miracle cream was for what. At the same time, choosing a lip color became a daily burden, leading me to the conclusion that less really can be more. My earring collection is another matter.

Lest you think my quest is or has been all about appearances, there was also the cookbook/cookware/gadgetry phase and the needlework era, followed by a piano-music binge (I have four file cabinet drawers filled with music books, a few from which I actually play.)

To be fair, I can look back and see that my striving was rooted in a subconscious fear of scarcity, which I glimpsed as a child. And there was the view of the other side: girls who lived in two-story houses with air conditioning and more than one bathroom; friends whose moms picked them up from school in shiny new station wagons or luxury sedans; the college roommate who wore silk blouses, won beauty contests, and vacationed in the Hamptons.

Exposed to a higher standard of living, I yearned for the same status, and when I had the means to do so, I accumulated things I thought would bring me the attention, affection, and respect I craved. That plan backfired, leading to increased anxiety as I was striving for the ever-elusive land of enough.

While I was busy chasing material possessions, I fell into a pattern of comparison, measuring myself against other people’s assets, both material and physical, which we all know is a blueprint for misery. If only I had this person’s hair, that person’s figure, another person’s talents, a fancier house, a newer car, the perfect shoes….

The awakening
I hate to admit it, but it took 63 years and a global pandemic to shake me out of my materialistic, envy-induced coma. As necessities such as toilet paper and common food staples became scarce, I, like a lot of other people, got focused on daily essentials. I found myself directing my attention inward to discover what I value and why, and I began to question what is really required to be happy.

After spending a great deal of time at home with no place to go and nothing to compare, I concluded that happiness is often contingent upon external circumstances. It’s a feeling that can be as fleeting as the thrill of a Christmas toy, cast aside by day’s end, or a new outfit worn once.

Contentment, on the other hand, comes from an internal optimism and the positive experience of everyday life, despite what’s going on around us. Contentment, I believe, is the foundation for true happiness. It’s not achieved by accumulating material wealth or getting what we think we must have to fit in or feel worthy. Contentment is finding joy in what we already have. It’s being happy without seeking fulfillment in possessions. Contentment is a state of unconditional wholeness that invites us to stop comparing ourselves and to break the cycle of wanting more.

I won’t claim that I no longer want “stuff.” I still love clothes, makeup, and earrings, and I am currently in the midst of some home improvement projects. The difference is, I no longer pursue those things with the feverish expectation that they will increase my happiness or add to my worth. Joy comes from the inside, where contentment has found her way home.

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Five Pathways to Contentment
Learning to be content comes from a combination of mindset shifts, habit changes, and awareness. Here are four pathways to help you find your way.

1.Count your blessings. Gratitude is the cornerstone of contentment. Focusing on and expressing gratitude for what you already have is the first step towards a permanent breakup with discontent. Ironically, once you turn your attention to all the things you have to be thankful for, you begin to lose sight of what you lack.

2.Interrupt the buying habit. Material possessions will never lead to contentment. Next time you are tempted to purchase something non-essential, take a moment to examine why you want it. What does acquiring that item represent, and how might you fill the void or meet the deeper need without spending more money? As contentment seeps in, your perspective shifts, and you will no longer be distracted by every shiny object that comes into view.

3.Stop comparing yourself to others. There will always be people who appear to have a better life than yours—operative word, “appear.” Understand that every human in every situation has a set of problems, challenges, heartaches, and hardships alongside whatever cheerful image he or she may be projecting socially. Instead of coveting your neighbor’s greener grass, tend to your own patch of earth. Celebrate your uniqueness and be grateful for the experiences that have made you who and what you are.

4.Appreciate the here and now. We often engage in mental aerobics that involve “when and then” thinking: “When I get this or achieve that, then I will be happy.” To fully appreciate the present and know true contentment, we must stop predicating our happiness on some future acquisition or event. What if “then” never comes? Will you have wasted the opportunity to be happy now? Examine your life and see how wonderful it already is; it doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfectly okay. Stop looking for the secret passageway that might lead to happiness. Contentment is on your doorstep now. Won’t you invite her in?

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