Recently, I realized that contentment is a characteristic I should work very hard to develop, because if I can learn to be truly content with my life, even as circumstances change, then happiness and peace won’t be far behind. In thinking about how I could learn to be more content, I discovered that for me it comes down to two things: letting go of want, and practicing gratitude.
The other morning, while I was walking to my office, I passed by a local restaurant that everyone raves about. I’ve never eaten there because they don’t offer a single vegan option. Several diners were sitting at tables outside, eating delicious looking food. I felt the familiar pangs I’d experienced many times in recent weeks, wishing that I weren’t vegan. I wanted other food. “Better” food. I had been struggling, arguing with myself, rationalizing – trying to find a way to be okay with deviating from my values. As I passed by that restaurant and looked at the food and those people enjoying it, I felt envy toward them. I wanted that experience. Immediately, I felt deflated, worn out, and my internal voice said, “I’m tired of wanting that.” And that thought was a kind of revelation for me: what if the problem wasn’t the food that I couldn’t have, but was simply my want of it? If I could eliminate the want, then this struggle would simply disappear.
I mulled this over as I turned the corner and headed into a beautiful neighborhood park, where I was struck by another thought: What if one of those people sitting at that restaurant is looking at me and envying my circumstances? They could very well be sitting there thinking, “I wish I could walk through the park.” And it was true – here I was, on a beautiful morning, walking to work at my dream job. I’d already eaten breakfast, I wasn’t even hungry. So where did that want come from?
I don’t know whether we are conditioned by society to want what others have, or whether it’s some innate, primal, animal instinct. Probably, it is a little of both. But we are also intelligent creatures, capable of rational thought and reason, and my reason tells me that wanting what others have is bad for me.
It was surprising how my mood lifted once I shifted my focus from the diners at the little restaurant to the flowers in the park. Rather than imagining myself sitting at a table, eating whatever I wanted, I paid attention to where I was and what was around me. I adopted a mindful mien, appreciated the present, and felt truly grateful. I tucked that moment away and thought, “I need to remember this for next time.”