First published on happify.com
Have you ever been around someone who exuded a sense of peace and contentment? They may not have had the biggest house, the greatest job, or the best-behaved kids in the world, but they seemed to have something far more precious: true happiness. In fact, just being around them made you more receptive to life.
My aunt was like this. I remember visiting her as a child; we arrived unannounced, as was the norm where I grew up. She and my uncle had just sat down for lunch, and she insisted we join them. There was only enough food on the table for two, which she happily divided amongst all of us. To this day, I remember the joy and laughter at the table. She gave us her full presence, and none of us left hungry in any way.
In the decades since, I haven’t met many people like her. I’m not sure whether she was born that way or worked on herself to become the content person I knew her to be.
But what I do know is that the economic wheels of our current world churn on our dissatisfaction. Almost every message we receive, subtle or overt, reminds us of what we don’t have. Is it any wonder that, despite living in the most abundant times, many of us are plagued by a scarcity mindset?
Redefining the Good Life
It’s important to change this mindset for our overall happiness, especially now during the season of holiday spending and year-end reflecting. This year, with rising living expenses and skyrocketing inflation, many of us have racked up exorbitant credit card bills that we’ll be paying off for months. Or we may be forced to curb our gift giving, and receiving, and feel like a victim of our circumstances.
If you relate, you may want to think about how followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, father of Epicurean philosophy, think about a good life. They believe that the purpose of life is pleasure—what’s the point of this entire journey if we’re not enjoying ourselves?
But they also define pleasure differently than by the ideals we’ve been taught (and sold) in our day and age. In her book Living for Pleasure: An Epicurean Guide to Life, Emily Austin, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, writes that it is a state of “ataraxia,” which best translates as “tranquility,” that defines Epicurean pleasure. Contentment.
Here are three ways to build it so that, this holiday season, you experience a feeling of fullness and abundance, and not scarcity and dearth.
Find the Joy
Epicurus divided pleasures into three categories: necessary, extravagant, and corrosive. He advised focusing on necessary pleasures, which are simple things such as food, free time, fresh air, friendships. Extravagant pleasures, like fancy meals and expensive gifts, he said, are okay if indulged in rarely; if they become a compulsion, they get in the way of necessary pleasures. As for the corrosive pleasures—empty pursuits that can never be satisfied, such as of power, fame, and beauty—they’re to be avoided at all costs.
Do your own pleasure inventory. Are you engaging in the necessary pleasures? Are you valuing free time? Do you notice simple joys, such as the happy chirping of birds outside your window in the morning? You have to train your mind to do so because our brains are wired to notice what’s big and what’s bad. What’s important often slips through the cracks and creates gaping holes of unhappiness in our lives.
Value Your Relationships
Science backs up the Epicurean view of relationships: They’re one of the biggest contributors to our happiness. Even so, many of us grow up being taught independence and can sometimes struggle to make space for others in our lives. We struggle not to be vulnerable because it can reveal that we aren’t as strong as we’re meant to be.
The good news is it’s easy to be vulnerable if we spend more time together—not glued to the TV or our phones. Conversations happen when we look at each other. We can see beyond words to the human being in front of us. We can feel with them, which silences the inner chatter of judgment. It’s impossible to feel empathy and negativity at the same time.
This is so important during the holiday season when many of us will be with family and friends. How will you be present? How will you notice the subtle ways in which others make you feel loved or seen? How will you do the same for them?
Know When Is Enough
You may have heard of the two categories of decision-makers: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers want to make the choice of maximum benefit to them. Satisficers, on the other hand, are happy with the choice that meets their requirements.
In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz, Ph.D., writes of the stress and agony that maximizers put themselves through in a world with no end of options. Ironically, they also end up making less informed choices as a result. And sadly, their pursuit of better is often at the expense of the simple pleasures: time and tranquility.
To be a satisficer, know what “enough” looks like. What makes you feel full? What pushes your needle to Content without ticking over to land on Overwhelmed and Overstretched? You’ll often find it in the simple pleasures; playing with your baby doesn’t make you wish for twins any more than a good conversation with a friend makes you wish for a big blowout party.
The beautiful thing about contentment is that it expands your experience of life. Because the reality is that none of us knows how long we get to live. But when we stop running after something elusive in the future, we return to the present moment. We live wide, enjoying each moment of this magical journey called life.
I wouldn’t want to go through it with blinders on. Would you?