To find happiness, look into practicing contentment rather than seeking more material wealth.
Michael Finkelstein teaches that everything is inter-dependent in Slow Medicine (William Morrow, 2015), from muscles and nerves to minds, people and planet. To optimize our wellness, we need to become aware of each area of our lives and of their harmonious integration. In the following excerpt from chapter 5, “Regaining Your Energy: Getting in the Flow,” Finkelstein addresses practicing contentment as a form of conscious awareness.
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When we start humming more in tune with the natural order, we can approach the kind of peace of mind that’s necessary to reap the reward of extraordinary health. But how many of us do that? And how many get sidetracked in the pursuit of illusory goals like money and material goods? Despite what our culture promotes, the true essence of extraordinary health and happiness has nothing to do with extraordinary wealth—nor will even a relative lack thereof prevent you from attaining it, if you ask the right questions and strive to answer them with good sense, good science, and intuition.
Lots of studies by economists and psychologists have concluded that, assuming you have enough money to cover your basic needs, you will not grow happier as you grow more materially wealthy. In fact, I would argue that as you pursue more and more material wealth, you’re likely to get out of balance, out of sync with the real valuable rhythms of the universe—and you’ll wind up far less happy and healthy. Instead, you can attain a tremendous peace of mind, starting soon, if you change your thinking about contentment and what that would mean to you.
Taoism’s sacred book, the Tao Te Ching, says, “He who knows contentment is rich,” a phrase echoed ages later by Henry David Thoreau: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” This is true contentment— and lately, it’s rarer than diamonds. Money is wonderful in that it allows us to afford the things we need and even want. I will admit that I enjoy my beautiful home in my beautiful town. And I will tell you transparently that I find joy in having the security to be creative and enjoy some of the material trappings I can afford. But truthfully, I understand that “trappings” are called that for a reason. I know the less we want and crave—the less we get used to the “stuff” around us—the happier we will be. As I write this, a few blocks away from me, in the barn on one of the loveliest (and most expensive) estates in Bedford, the police this morning cut down the hanging body of Mary Kennedy, surely one of the richest and most “successful” of my neighbors. While we really can’t know all that was going on in her mind, our hearts sink at such a time. Clearly, the whole Kennedy clan with their endless stream of tragedies provides an object lesson in how prosperity, power, and success have no bearing on inner peace, balance, health, or happiness.
Today, we are so screwed up that we willingly close our eyes to life’s realities in order to maintain a status quo—or to continue an “upward” striving for more of everything—that paradoxically leaves us far from contentment, having missed the joys of the journey. We value outer experiences and material possessions, and we routinely (and mistakenly) look to external sources for contentment. Food, cars, money, jewelry, clothing—all of the stuff that’s supposed to promise us either satisfaction or an easing of discomfort. But why are we uncomfortable in the first place? We don’t know, because we fail to ask ourselves.
Avoiding this trap demands that we really look in the mirror again, to seek out and then reflect on those moments of true contentment. Can you recall a time when all your yearnings were satisfied? Remember when you were a kid, how much joy and contentment you got from your favorite toy? Remember Charlie Brown’s credo that “Happiness is a warm puppy”? I know I can feel this way in my garden, and when I write, and when I become involved in helping my patients find their paths to extraordinary health. What does it for you?
While you’re looking in that mirror, search back to a time when your inner world was still; when you were free from wants and cravings. Did this moment occur as you experienced the birth of your first child? Or, did it occur as you witnessed your daughter take her first steps, speak her first words, or discover the glory of a starfish she found on the beach? Were you fishing with your father on a tranquil mountain lake, or walking peacefully in the woods, away from the pressures of work and the endless pursuit of material wealth and career success? While the elation of even the most wonderful moments fades eventually, we can appreciate that they offer us a rare glimpse of the nature of true contentment, of the inner peace and calm that is the foundation of extraordinary health. We can never realize contentment through external sources alone. Never. Inner stillness and peace of mind are the foundations of true contentment. “Of mind” means in the mind—not in the wallet or the driveway or in our children or our degrees or titles or other achievements.
It’s important to remember how intimately this feeling of contentment is tied to our overall health—despite our specific, physical conditions. Have you ever met a person with a serious, debilitating illness who nonetheless projected a calm, peaceful, contented inner state? It happens all the time. Why? Because, paradoxically, sometimes a serious challenge to our health makes us realize that so many of our concerns, wants, and desires are petty and unnecessary.
But you don’t have to get terminal cancer to experience true contentment. There are several healthier ways to cultivate it. The deepest, longest-lasting satisfaction comes when we resonate with nature and ourselves—when we tap into the source of energy around us—and when we have refocused our desires away from material goods and fleeting feelings of success that come from illusory achievements and acquisitions. Conscious awareness—the practice of remaining in contact with the true source of contentment— will provide the ultimate path to greater equanimity. Even in the midst of fear, misery, and chaos, we can return to this feeling if we practice it. Over time, this state of contentment becomes a new habit. The key is to give it our fullest attention when it arises. Don’t you think that, whatever your physical ailments, you’d feel better if you could achieve this? Of course you would.
Cultivating greater contentment isn’t so difficult that it takes a mystic to achieve it, but, like everything else worthwhile on the path to extraordinary health, it does take practice. Practice sitting quietly with nature or the one you love, or your children, or friends, or whatever “warm puppy” makes you happy. Practice simply feeling connected by peace and love and the simplicity of living. Practice really experiencing your senses whenever you can. Practice thinking, believing, and saying that you’re grateful and thankful for what you’ve been given.
When you get better at this, you can try the more challenging practice of sitting quietly and continuously for longer periods. Whenever you feel yourself getting sucked into the wishes and desires that will arise, you can dismiss them, let them fl oat by like passing clouds. True contentment is woven into the fabric of our being, and not the “almighty” dollar. Our task is to simply discover where it resides. If it suits you, you can pray during these times. You can meditate on some simple, peaceful beliefs or affirmations. Not, “I will get that new Mustang and that promotion,” but “I am at peace.”
Give yourself the time and space to practice this. The problem for us is that we’re not so comfortable in such stillness. Instead, like addicts we seek constant stimulation from outside sources. Simply, we’ve lost sight of and appreciation for the intrinsic fullness and beauty of nature and our integral place in it. It’s an interesting paradox, and a fact intrinsically tied to our overall lack of health and balance, that we tend to desire things that the universe does not naturally give us (a BlackBerry), while taking for granted or ignoring the great bounty that it does give us (blackberries).
Reprinted with permission from Slow Medicine: Hope and Healing for Chronic Illness by Michael Finkelstein, M.D. and published by William Morrow, 2015.