What would it take to make you happy? To feel content? To feel satisfied with life?
We use different words to talk about this, but almost everybody instinctively knows what I’m talking about. Most of us have some story we tell ourselves about what it would take for us to feel at peace with our lives.
Some people think more money would make them happy. Others care little about money but crave the love and acceptance they’ve always needed. Others want power or social status. They want others to see them some particular way. They think if they had a particular house or car or boat — or something — they would be able to be content with the world and at peace with their lives.
I’m no different. I’ve had money in the past, but found it brought little peace. At this point in my life, I’d love to have more money, but I know it wouldn’t change my satisfaction with life. It wouldn’t give me the peace I crave.
My holy grail right now is connection — to be loved, accepted, valued and understood. Some deep part of me believes I would be happy — would have peace, find contentment, whatever you want to call it — if I simply had a family and some deep community connection. I have a beautiful and loving picture of what that life could look like. And I feel as though it would change everything.
But I have the nagging intuition that I’m wrong. In my gut, I have the terrible feeling that if I can’t be happy or content or at peace right now — when I’m alone and lack many of the things I want — I wouldn’t find those things if all my dreams suddenly came true.
This certainly isn’t an original idea. I’ve seen it — and basically ignored it — in various philosophies and teachings all my life. I first encountered it in church years ago. I heard preachers talk about being satisfied with God instead of wanting worldly things.
In my own Christian faith, the notion is probably best known in the words of the apostle Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, here’s what he wrote:
“…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
I hadn’t realized this until recently, but I’ve unconsciously thought of the idea as nonsense. I don’t think the preachers who taught it to me really believed what they said, either. Despite their words, I saw most of these men — when I’ve seen their real passions and wants — act as though they could be happy through the same kind of success the rest of us have pursued. Just a religious version.
Without thinking much about it, most of us have lived — at least for a good bit of life — in the words of Gerry Rafferty’s 1978 song, “Baker Street“:
Another year and then you’d be happy
Just one more year and then you’d be happy
But you’re crying, you’re crying now
We need another year. We need another big win. We need another notch on a social ladder. Or something. But almost all of us have lived this way. Unconsciously, it’s the way I’ve lived. If I just had some success, people would love me. If I just had the right wife, I would feel the acceptance I’ve craved. If I had the connection to others in my community, that would change everything.
I’m not saying that none of these things can matter. Being poor makes life difficult. Being alone makes life lonely. Being a failure (or perceiving yourself as a failure) can make you feel a sense of misery.
But here’s what has always confused me. I have known people who were joyful and at peace while they lived lives that seemed horrible by my standards. I have known people who have chosen to put themselves into deprivation of one sort or another but who seemed to experience peace and contentment.
Were they just fooling themselves? Was it just their personalities that made them able to ignore the needs and desires and angst that I feel about my own life? I think I’ve always had the unconscious belief that they were somehow different from me.
I still want the things that I know I want. I’d like to be more successful again. I want love and a family and connection. I’d like the money to buy nicer things and travel to places I’d like to go. I’d like for people to see me as providing something worthwhile to them. I’d like them to admire me.
But my gut tells me that if I can’t learn to feel peace and contentment in my life today — regardless of the circumstances — I won’t find it if I have all those things which I think would make me happy.
I recently read that when people acquire the big things in life that they wanted so badly — a house or car or boat or whatever — it takes only eight weeks, on average, for the joy to fade away. People tend to feel excited about the thing that had been wanting, but they soon found it was just another part of their lives.
Those things simply didn’t bring the deeper feelings of satisfaction that we all unconsciously crave from the things we want.
I can’t pretend to know exactly how to find this joy and peace and contentment. It’s easy to piously say it’s all about finding God and obeying him. There’s truth in that — from my point of view — but most of the people I know who would quote Paul’s lines about being content in all things aren’t even close to finding the contentment the words speak of.
It’s become a thing that we Christians quote in sermons and we tell others how they ought to be like this — but we go right on living as though we expect the things we can acquire to make us happy.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” we seem to think. “That’s great, but in my case, I also need this one other thing. Anybody would understand that.”
I don’t have it all figured out. I just know that I’m finally fully conscious of the fact that I have to find peace within — the deeper spiritual kind — right here, right now.
If I’m not able to find the peace and contentment that I crave — without the “one more thing” that I always think I need — none of those things will ever matter. But finally admitting that to myself and accepting that it’s true is the most important first step.