While waiting to play tennis with a friend yesterday (I’ll call him Shane), I asked him how many of his friends were happy from his perspective.
He said, “Most of them, actually.”
“Because you probably don’t want to be around negative people, right?”
He quickly responded, “Exactly.”
But, he did acknowledge that many of the people he used to associate himself with were negative, not for any specific reasons, but he believed because they “were born that way.”
I confirmed that there does seem to be a sort of happiness “set point”–the idea that everyone is born with their own level of potential happiness, a range if you will.
You Can Still Increase Your Level of “Happiness”
In fact, this has been researched across multiple countries with thousands of people and it does appear that each of us seems to have a range or pre-established level of potential happiness (up to 50% determined by our lineage), assuming our basic needs (shelter, food, social connection, job) are taken care of, that determines our level of happiness.
But, this means we still have quite a bit of opportunity (at least 50%) where we can greatly impact our level contentment and happiness.
Shane then went on to tell me about a friend of his, a hedge fund manager, who had a decade of poor results in the market.
He said, “You’d think this guy would have a black cloud over his head everywhere he went. But, every time I saw him he was as content as could be. It just doesn’t make sense.”
What is Contentment?
Contentment is defined as an emotional state of satisfaction that can be seen as a mental state, drawn from being at ease in one’s situation, body and mind.
Colloquially speaking, contentment could be a state of having accepted one’s situation and is a milder and more tentative form of happiness.
Why explore the idea of contentment? Simply put, if we are allotted approximately 75 years of life or more with reasonably good health, wouldn’t it make sense to decide how you want to optimally spend this time and, of course, with whom?
I think now is perhaps one of the best times to re-evaluate our values as we continue to navigate our way through the relentless Covid fog.
Top Barrier to Contentment
I began to tell Shane about my early morning insight–that one of our greatest barriers to contentment/happiness (and performance, of course)–is our thoughts, our thinking mind, our perspective.
In other words, as UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden said, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. It’s not what you see, it’s how you look at it. It’s not how your life is, it’s how you live it.”
He took this idea in but, he wasn’t satisfied with this explanation alone.
He said, “I think it’s about the work, the energy, you put into something and seeing the outcome of it.”
Pulling his racquet out of his bag, he continued, “Like every day that I wake up I get joy out of being in my house. When the sun shines in the window at just the right angle–something I helped design–it makes me happy every day.”
As we start to warm-up, he probes, “You probably get the same feeling when you look at one of your trophies.”
“Not at all,” I replied. “Not even close. I get very little, if anything, from looking at my trophies. I never really have, except maybe when I was a kid.
“It’s different,” I said, as I go back to the baseline to begin our rallies, “When you wake up in the morning you feel joy knowing that you helped create a certain part of your home. And you can enjoy actually being in it every day.
“When I look at a trophy–which I rarely do–I’m no longer at the tournament where it all happened.
“What was joyful for me was being with my friends all week while hitting a tennis ball. It’s not the same.”
He tapped his racket against his shoulder. “Good point.”
I suppose if I really sat there reflecting on what helped earn a particular trophy–the years of discipline and time running after the ball–I could bring up the memories of the tournament and that would bring me a shot of gratitude, perhaps even brief moments of joy.
But, it would take some effort and somehow it doesn’t feel the same as standing in your home looking out the window every morning.
Passion, Hard Work and Contentment
We then moved onto the concept of passion–that working hard at something you genuinely love to do is the reward itself and how this usually leads to a feeling of contentment.
Pointing to his house above the courts, Shane tells me, “Take, for example, my tomato garden. When I plant tomatoes and see them grow, it makes me happy. It’s the same thing with any passion I have.”
I’ll be honest: my first thought was that planting tomatoes does not sound like fun. Although, I’ve never planted tomatoes, so I don’t know enough to make a determination. I’ll bet it’s because I’ve never done it and not yet experienced the satisfaction of seeing them grow.
“But,” I said, “the only problem with this is that there are many people who, because of their life circumstance or perhaps their lower happiness “set-point”, don’t have passions like you do. Many people never even find one.”
I continued, “You’re fortunate because I bet most things you’ve tried have eventually worked out–in other words, you’ve had a positive outcome, you’ve been rewarded for your efforts.”
“Maybe that’s true,” he acknowledged. “But, there were many times when the tomatoes did not grow. At least four times the soil wasn’t right. It was either too dry or too wet and it didn’t work. It was frustrating but I went back and did it again.”
“Why did you go back?”
He grimaced, “Because I wasn’t about to give up just because it didn’t work the first time. I wasn’t going to quit.”
Shane’s face literally contorted when I asked that question. I could see the idea of quitting was abhorrent to him.
No question I was impressed with his tenacity and resilience, although it didn’t surprise me because he is the definition of tenacity. He is smart, savvy, and relentlessly persistent. It’s clear to me why he is successful and competent in most of the things he tries.
The primary point my friend was trying to make was that contentment comes from hard work. It comes from the energy we put into things. I agree.
It’s not always easy and comfortable, but eventually the fruits of your labor will pay off–whether it’s a house, the ability to hit a tennis ball, a relationship, a career, or financial freedom.
So, I ask you, what is your number one value in life that matters to you?
Asking yourself what you value, what’s meaningful to you in life, is a worthwhile question. Beware of the tug-of-war that may ensue, but don’t let that stop you.
Then, get busy and make a plan on bringing this value more into your life. Start VERY small and DO JUST ONE ACTION PER DAY. Let the momentum build.
I don’t grow tomatoes, but I think the “garden”of contentment is worth cultivating over time.
To learn more about my popular course with Craig O’Shannessy click Here.