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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Finding and Developing Contentment

What is Contentment?
In traditional psychotherapy, the emphasis tends to be on what's wrong rather than what's right with clients. Contemporary forms of psychotherapy, especially psychotherapy with a focus on a more holistic mind-body connection, are more concerned with a strengths-based perspective: acknowledging that there are problems, but also looking at the client's resilience and other positive aspects of a client's personality and situation. In light of this, there is also a perspective on finding and developing a sense of contentment in one's life.

Finding and Developing Contentment
Contentment as a State of Mind
When we talk about contentment, what do we mean? In our Western culture, the words "content" or "contentment" often has negative connotations and have become associated with complacency and consolation: "He was content to just settle for less rather than fighting to get more," "She said she thought it must be her 'karma' to be in a relationship with someone who doesn't treat her well," and so on. But contentment is not about being satisfied. Contentment is more about a state of mind in the here and now. You can be content and still have goals, but when you're content, you develop goals that are more in keeping with having balance in your life, and you're trying to achieve these goals in a non-grasping and non-greedy way.

It's often easier to be more aware of the things that make us unhappy and compare ourselves to people who have more of what we think we want in our lives rather than to seek internal contentment. When our perspective is one that focuses on what we don't have, we're more likely to be in a constant state of discontent most of the time. It leaves us in a state of agitation.

We're more likely to look for the next "quick fix" to try to achieve what we think might make us happy. But the "quick fix," whether it's continually craving buying something new, overeating or drinking excessively or using drugs, leads us into a vicious cycle of wanting more. Having more of whatever it is we think we want might give us a temporary emotional lift, but it doesn't make us feel content. It gives us a fleeting moment of elation, but it doesn't last. And when it's over, we're craving the next "quick fix." In that way, the "quick fix" is similar to the "geographic cure," which I wrote about in my last blog post.

So, contentment is more about a state of mind that isn't dependent upon what we have or what we do. It's more about our internal state of mind rather than about the externals like how much money we make, our job titles, our status or how attractive or young we are. It's about finding comfort and peace in who we are right now. It's about having gratitude for the simple pleasures in life. When we're content, we're not comparing ourselves, either favorably or unfavorably, to others.

Contentment Doesn't Mean Consolation
Contentment is a peaceful and serene state of mind. It doesn't mean that we don't try to improve ourselves or that we give up trying to lead a more conscious and authentic life. It's not an excuse for giving up when we feel disappointed with life. It's more of an awareness of what's really important in our lives and the choices that we make.

For most people, when they stop and think about what's really important, it's not about how much money they have or their possessions. In fact, research has shown that, even for people who win the multi-million dollar lottery, after the initial elation of winning all of that money, they go back to whatever their overall level of contentment or discontentment was before they won the money. This shows that, beyond having enough to meet our needs (rather than our wants), money really doesn't bring contentment. And, having more often leads to our craving more.

How to Develop Contentment
In a world where the focus tends to be on the "next new thing" or having the best of everything, leaving us constantly feeling disatisfied, grasping and craving more, how we do develop contentment?

To start, we can turn our attention inward.

A daily practice of meditation, where we're focused on our internal world for a brief period of time each day, helps to center our minds. Rather than dwelling on the past or focusing on the future, in a meditative state, stay present with where you are in the here and now. Centering and grounding yourself, your emotions become more balanced. You become more aware of your core self. The core self is that centered, compassionate, intuitive part of yourself.

Contentment and a Gratitude Journal
Developing a sense of gratitude is also helpful to developing a state of contentment. Rather than dwelling on and craving what you don't have, take a few minutes each day to feel grateful for who you are right now and what you do have.

I find that keeping a gratitude journal, where you write down at least three things that you feel grateful for each day, helps to develop a sense of gratitude. When you keep a gratitude journal, after a while, you begin to internalize a sense of gratitude and contentment.

Contentment & Gratitude Journal
For most people, when they keep a daily gratitude journal, they feel less agitated, less compulsive about grasping and craving what they don't have, and less disatisfied with life in general. They're more able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life with a sense of contentment and gratitude for life: Rather than feeling unhappy that it's raining outside, they're able to enjoy listening to the rhythm of the rain falling outside their windows, knowing that they're safe and warm inside. Rather than feeling badly for what they don't have and continually craving more money or more of whatever it is they think they want more of, they're able to appreciate what they do have.

So, even if your habitual way of being is to dwell on what's wrong or what you don't have, you can develop contentment. It takes practice to change your perspective. Even after you develop more of a sense of gratitude and contentment, it's easy to slip back into old negative habits. For most people, it's not a matter of having "arrived" at a sense of contentment because the countervailing forces around us, whether it's our own negative thoughts or out of control consumerism around us, can be very strong, easily pulling us back to a state of craving and discontent.

That's why a daily meditation practice helps to bring us back to that place of centeredness and groundedness, especially when we feel ourselves slipping back into old negative thought patterns.

As we develop our meditation practice, we learn to develop a sense of contentment about that too. Rather than approaching our meditation practice with the same sense of perfectionism that we might apply to the rest of our lives, we learn to be balanced about it. So that if we miss a day or two of meditation, we don't berate ourselves or compare ourselves to others who might be more consistent than we are in our practice. We don't engage in all-or-nothing thinking where we give up meditating because we didn't do it for a few days or more.

Instead, we recognize that we're human. We have compassion for ourselves and return to our meditation practice.

We recognize that finding and developing contentment is a lifelong process.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and EMDR therapist.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006.

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