I recently read a fascinating book titled Finding Contentment, by Neil Clark Warren. Dr. Warren is an inspirational therapist, author and speaker whose background combines the realms of theology and clinical psychology. He contends that most people lead numbed-out lives lacking in purpose and attempt to fill the void by constantly chasing short-lived “happiness highs.”
Happiness per se, he states, tends to be fleeting and dependent on externalities, such as a stimulating encounter with another person, an exciting movie, the “rush” we receive from adventurous risk taking or a job promotion. Those of us in the addiction field are intimately familiar with the dysfunctional highs our clients obsessively pursue through irresponsibly ingesting alcohol and other drugs, food addictions, sexual addictions, compulsive gambling and other self-destructive behaviors designed to temporarily fill the void in their lives.
Over and beyond fleeting moments of happiness, Warren contends that we harbor a deep hunger for contentment–a sustained feeling of peace and satisfaction that comes with the realization that we have encountered ourselves at a deep level and are truly at ease with who we are. In his words: “Contentment is almost always the consequence of your relationship with yourself, a consistent loyalty to the person you truly are.”
Moving Toward Contentment
Paraphrasing Warren, contentment flows from discovering who we really are and living an authentic life, regardless of what society in general or significant people in our lives may attempt to impose upon us in terms of what they think we “should” be doing.
Moving toward contentment entails some heavy soul searching directed toward identifying and clarifying our unique core values–those values that really hold true for us as individuals.
A key question we must confront ourselves with is: “Am I living a life that is congruent with my core values?” If that is not the case, then we need to ask ourselves: “What steps do I need to take to bring my life into alignment with my core values, and am I prepared to ‘walk the walk?’”
Consider the following example. Ian is a husband and father who is a pacifist at heart. Several decades ago he fell into a career of working in the defense industry without giving it that much thought. Dialoging with his therapist, he now recognizes that his inability to reconcile his values with his means of earning a living is a significant contributing factor to his chronic discontentment and his excessive drinking and use of marijuana.
Obviously Ian is not living a life that is congruent with his core values. To bring himself into alignment with these values, he needs to develop and follow through with a concrete action plan to transition to “the right livelihood,” a means of earning a living that resonates with his heartfelt desire to promote peace. Making this transition may not be an easy task, as he is likely to encounter pressure from his family and others to keep on doing what he has been doing for many years. There are also the very real financial challenges involved in making a major career shift.
There is indeed a price to pay for bringing our lives into alignment with our true values. The alternative, however, is to resign ourselves to continuing a numbed-out existence where we constantly move farther and farther away from our true selves.
Charting Our Personal Path
Warren stresses that an authentic life entails consciously processing every decision we make–weighing the consequences in terms of how our chosen course of action will impact both ourselves and others. For example, suppose I feel like taking a break from my writing and treating myself to a dish of ice cream, bananas and maple syrup. While initially this seems like a great idea, I factor in the realization that I am feeling a bit run-down and may be fighting off a low-grade virus. Taking this knowledge into account, I conclude that I do not wish to risk weakening my immune system by overdosing on sugar. So instead I opt to snack on an apple.
Some considerations that I have found helpful in charting my own path in pursuit of contentment include:
- Identifying and following our mission in this life. Key questions for reflection include “what do I have to give?” and “how do I wish to apply my talents to enrich the lives of others and reap the rewards of true fulfillment?”
- Deeping our relationships with those who really matter. While I derive immense enjoyment from my work as a writer and speaker, I often succumb to the trap of obsessive busyness to the detriment of my relationship with my wife—my best friend and source of inspiration. In order to flourish, any relationship must remain rooted in rich soil, be constantly and lovingly watered and exposed to the sunshine in all its glory.
- Always seeking the truth and being true to ourselves. We need to learn to see things as they really are and consistently walk the walk.
- Taking care of ourselves. While my primary career focus is promoting wellness in recovery, I often fail to practice what I preach. I am learning to appreciate my need to soften my intense overfocusing on the “importance” of whatever project I may be involved in at the moment. It was a very wise Zen master who said, “We are human beings, not human doings.”
- Achieving balance, joy and flexibility in our lives. While striving to live authentically sounds like really serious business, we must guard against taking ourselves too seriously. As they say in AA, the goal is progress, not perfection. We all need to learn to lighten up, cut ourselves some slack and take a healthy dose of time each day to smell the roses!
I hope you may find these thoughts on pursuing contentment of help in pursuing your own chosen path to recovery and fulfillment. As always, feel free to share these thoughts with your clients. To your health!
Warren, N.C. (1997). Finding Contentment: When Momentary Happiness Just Isn’t Enough. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.