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A Guide to Practical Contentment

A lot of people search for ways to find happiness, but I’ve found the idea of contentment to be more important than happiness.

Why contentment over happiness? A couple of important reasons:

  1. Happiness can go up or down each day (or moment), but contentment is something more stable.
  2. We tend to seek to increase happiness by adding things (food, excitement, a warm bath, time with a loved one) but contentment is a skill that allows you to subtract things and still be content.
  3. Contentment can actually be a good place to start as you make changes (changes and contentment might seem paradoxical to some, but hear me out).

What is contentment? For me, it’s really about being happy with who you are. Which I wasn’t for many years, and I think most people are not.

In my life, I’ve learned to be better at the skill of contentment (not that I’m perfect, but I’ve learned). I am happy with my life. I am happy with myself. I’m happy with where I am professionally, and don’t seek to add more readers or pageviews or income. I’m happy wherever I am.

And while many might say, “Sure, you can say that now that you’ve reached a certain level of success,” I think that’s wrong. Many people who achieve success don’t find contentment, and are always driven to want more, and are unhappy with themselves. Many people who are poor or don’t have a “successful” career have also found contentment. And what’s more, I think finding contentment has actually driven any success that I’ve found — it helped me get out of debt, it helped me change my habits, it has made me a better husband, father, friend and collaborator, perhaps even a better writer.

Worst of all, with the attitude of “you can be content because you’re successful”, is that people who say this are dismissing the path of contentment … when it’s something they can do right now. Not later, when they reach certain goals or a certain level of financial success. Now.

Let’s take a look at the path of contentment, how it’s a good place for habit change, and how to get started down the path.

The Path of Contentment

We start out in life thinking that we’re awesome. We can dance in public as 5-year-olds, and not care what others think of us. By the time we’re adults, that’s been driven out of us, by peers and parents and the media and embarrassing situations.

As adults, we doubt ourselves. We judge ourselves badly. We are critical of our bodies, of ourselves as people, of our lack of discipline, of all our faults. We don’t like our lives.

As a result, we try to improve this lacking self, try to get better because we suck so much. Or, we doubt our ability to get better, and are very unhappy. Or we sabotage our attempts at change, because we don’t really believe we can do it.

This self-dislike results in worse relationships, a stagnant career, unhappiness with life, complaints about everything, and often unhealthy habits like eating junk food, drinking too much alcohol, not exercising, shopping too much, being addicted to video games or the Internet.

So what’s the path to being content with yourself and your life?

The first problem is if you don’t trust yourself. That’s an important area to work with.

Your relationship with yourself is like your relationship with anyone else. If you have a friend who is constantly late and breaking his word, not showing up when he says he will, eventually you’ll stop trusting that friend. It’s like that with yourself, too. It’s hard to like someone you don’t trust, and it’s hard to like yourself if you don’t trust yourself.

So work on this trust with yourself (I give some practical steps in the bottom section below). Increase it slowly, and eventually you’ll trust yourself to be awesome.

The second problem is that you judge yourself badly. You compare yourself to an unreal ideal, in all areas. You want a beautiful model’s body. You want to achieve certain goals, personally and professionally. You want to travel the world and learn languages and learn a musical instrument and be an amazing chef and have an amazing social life and the perfect spouse and kids and incredible achievements and be the fittest person on the planet. Of course, those are completely realistic ideals, right?

And when we have these ideals, we compare ourselves to them, and we always measure up badly.

The path to contentment, then, is to stop comparing ourselves to these ideals. Stop judging ourselves. Let go of the ideals. And gradually learn to trust ourselves.

Read on for the practical steps.

Changing Habits and Contentment

Before we get to the practical steps, let’s talk about contentment and change. Many people think that if you’re content, you’re just going to lay on a beach doing nothing all day. Why do anything if you’re content with the way things are?

But actually contentment is a way better place to start making changes than unhappiness with who you are.

Most of us are driven by the need or desire to improve ourselves, to fix certain things about ourselves that we don’t like. While that can definitely be a place for driving some changes, it’s not a good place to start from with those kinds of changes.

If you feel there’s something wrong with you that needs to be improved, you’re going to be driven to improve yourself, but you may or may not succeed. Let’s say you fail in your habit change. Then you start to feel worse about yourself, and you’re then on a downward spiral where every time you try to improve, you fail, and so you feel worse about yourself, and then you’re on the downward spiral. You start to self-sabotage your changes, because you really don’t believe that you can do them. Based on past evidence, you don’t trust yourself that you can do it. And that makes you feel worse.

That’s if you fail. But let’s say you happen to succeed, and you’re really good at succeeding. So you succeed — maybe you lose weight, and so maybe you don’t feel as bad about your body now.

But what happens is, if you start in this place of fixing what’s wrong with you, you keep looking for what else is wrong with you, what else you need to improve. So maybe now feel like you don’t have enough muscles, or six pack abs, or you think your calves don’t look good, or if it’s not about your body, you’ll find something else.

So it’s this never-ending cycle for your entire life. You never reach it. If you start with a place of wanting to improve yourself and feeling stuck, even if you’re constantly successful and improving, you’re always looking for happiness from external sources. You don’t find the happiness from within, so you look to other things.

If you’re externally looking for happiness, it’s easy to get too into food, or shopping, or partying, or overwork, to try to be happy.

If instead, you can find contentment within and not need external sources of happiness, then you’ll have a reliable source of happiness. I find that to be a much better place to be than relying on external sources of happiness.

A lot of people wonder, “If you find contentment, won’t you just lay around on the beach, not improving the world, not doing anything?” But I think that’s a misunderstanding of what contentment is.

You can be content and lay around, but you can also be content and want to help others. You can be content and also compassionate to others, and want to help them. You can be happy with who you are, but at the same time want to help other people and ease their suffering. And that way, you can offer yourself to the world and do great works in the world, but not necessarily need that to be happy.

Even if for some reason, your work was taken away from you, you’d still have that inner contentment.

Practical Steps to Contentment

The question is how to get there. How to go from being unhappy with yourself to being content?

The path is learning a few crucial skills:

1. Build self-trust. The only way to fix a lack of trust is in small steps. If you the unreliable friend wants to rebuild trust with you, the right way is not for him to say, “Now, trust me with your life” — instead, it’s to start building trust in small steps. Do little things, and see if the trust is held up. Over time, you open yourself up more and more.

What I usually do to build trust is to start with small things that I’m totally certain I can do — drinking a glass of water every day is an easy example. I want to drink more water, so I set a bunch of reminders to drink a glass of water when I want to wake up. If you can keep that up for a week or two, it helps you trust yourself. Most people try to change hard stuff, fail, and then the trust is gone. So start with the small stuff.

2. Notice your ideals. The other problem for finding contentment is that we’re constantly feeling bad about ourselves, because the reality of ourselves does not meet some ideal we hold. That ideal could come from mass media, looking at magazines and movie stars. Or it could just come from some idea about how perfect we should be. When it comes to productivity or how our bodies should look.

The truth is, the reality of ourselves is not bad, it’s only in bad in relation to the ideal that we have about ourselves. When we let go of the ideal, we’re left with the reality that can be judged as perfectly great. It’s a unique human being who is beautiful in its own way.

So ask if you’re feeling bad about who you are and how you did. If so, it’s because of the ideal. To recognize that takes awareness first. Notice your ideals.

3. Let go of the ideals. Once we notice the ideals, we need to stop comparing ourselves to them. Let go of the ideal. The only way to let go of the ideal is to see the pain that it’s causing in yourself and realize you want to end that pain, and letting go of an ideal that’s hurting you is self-compassion. Watch the pain. Be compassionate with yourself and stop causing pain in yourself with this process of comparing yourself with ideals.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC