“Where is contentment located?”
I found this question reverberating in my head during the conversation. The setting was a meeting with a group of my close friends and their spouses. Though our careers and destinies have taken us in different directions, the occasional opportunity presents itself for regrouping and reliving old times. As is the norm, after the usual frolic, peppered with anecdotes narrated umpteen times to the same magnitude of laughter, and strands of discussions that would seem like pure nonsense to a rank outsider, the mood takes on a philosophical overtone. That’s when the real essence starts to flow. Musings on career, marriage and life purpose take over.
As folks in their 3rd decade of life are wont to do, we talk about the unique challenges faced as our kids enter school;
about how men become the archetypal men and women become archetypal women in a marriage.
And then perhaps, as the quintessential hallmark of the quasi (or real?) midlife crisis that every 30-something year old experiences, the conversation veers towards life purpose, whether the current career is indeed our real calling, about the daily struggle of trying to stay connected to the ‘real me’ within.
The moot question at the heart of all this turbulence is – are we content with life, or at least with its present direction?
The quiet desperation
Why is it that so many folks are suffering discontentment in silence?
The reasons are many. But they can all be bundled up under 3 themes that decide one’s level of contentment. Life Expression, Life’s Work and Life Quality.
Life Expression: I have two friends – both with thriving careers. One is quite satisfied with the way things are progressing, despite the hectic life and the occasional hiccups in juggling so many roles. The other is desperate….feeling a sense of being on a slippery slope despite an upward career graph. So what gives?
It’s all about how life is expressing itself – the general direction in which days are progressing; the trajectory of one’s existence. Life expression is how your organizing principles (values) are playing out in each life domain and role. Despite all glorious outward appearances, if your current life is not an expression of who you are inside, you feel disconnected from your core, as if a part of you is absent.
Life’s Work: What if I am not “following my passion”? Or what if I am, but I know I have many other passions that I am not able to give time to? Or what if I don’t see any “impact” at the end of it, or experience a plateauing of skills?
Since at least one-third of our time is spent in work, it is no surprise that contentment is a function of where we choose to invest energies, and how we go about doing it. Being in the wrong line of work, not continuously improving in one’s craft (whether out of inability or choice) and not finding meaning in it are all sure shot recipes for discontentment.
We all set out to live fulfilled. And in doing that, we choose careers to devote our life to, cities that we purportedly like, material comforts that we think will add pleasure to our existence, and pursuits that will enrich our moments. But after all this careful choosing, why is it that we are still wanting for that elusive dream called well-being?
We spend far too much time planning our careers, business and task-lists, and not enough time (and sometimes no time at all) planning our life. In short, charting a course is the critical missing element…..the main cause of much of our personal misery.
Let’s talk about Quality of Life (QOL). What is it anyway? It consists of four aspects: time, work, people, wealth. Whatever emanates from these 5 elements determines our QOL.
The theory is simple:
If I have enough time in my day to invest in activities that are meaningful and fulfilling to me, my QOl increases.
If the work I do on a daily basis utilizes my core genius/ abilities and is fulfilling, my QOL will be high.
If the people I most frequently associate with are syngerstic with me (mutual value addition, enriching, meaningful harmonious relationships), my QOL is high.
If I have enough money or a source of income that supplies sufficient funds to enable me to be, do and have meaningful and fulfilling stuff, my QOL is high.
Notice the repetitive appearance of the words “meaning” and “fulfilling” in the above phrases. In contrast, “happiness, pleasure, fun etc” are missing. That’s because these are mere feelings….fleeting in its essence, transitory. They only create minor blips of high in the QOL, in a way that is unsustainable.
So what are some mistakes we make in our interpretation of QOL? Didn’t we all set out to live great lives (however different our individual interpretations of ‘great’ may be)?
Here are some things that go wrong:
- Time trap:
- We stuff our days with tasks, to-dos and activities without giving a thought as to whether it creates any long-term value. We engage with tasks merely because they appear on our calendar….thus merely reacting to the moment instead of proactively designing it.
- We invest our time in the wrong work, wrong people or misdirected money-chasing actions.
- We pack our days with activities believing (wrongly so) that if we don’t, we might miss out on opportunities.
- We don’t invest enough time in pausing, resting, and reassessing our life and priorities.
- We choose careers based on other people’s preferences & desires: sometimes parents want us to pursue a particular career, or we follow the lead of our friends and peer group. Sometimes we base our career-choices on the ‘shiny-object syndrome’ – going after whatever is hot and trending.
- We immerse ourselves so much in the day-to-day job, climbing the ladder, moving from one project completion to the other that we rarely pause to step back, look at it from above, and ask ourselves, “is this work fulfilling my potential, is it adding value to my body, mind and soul, is it creating the income and lifestyle I desire?”
- We are so lost in the safe comfort zone of our current work that we are not ready to even consider the risk of stepping out of it and pursuing our dream.
- We choose work and careers for the wrong combination of reasons: the money it gives, social standing, perceived status among our peers, and to avoid standing too far outside our ‘tribe’ such that people don’t question/ ridicule/ condemn our choices. In short, we want to fit in.
- We continue in dead-end careers so that the stability of our current income and lifestyle, however inadequate, is not disrupted. Predictable dissatisfaction is more tolerable than unforeseen comforts.
- People blues:
- We don’t get to choose our families. But we do get to choose our friends and coworkers. And if we don’t, at least we get to choose our quantum of association with them.
- Our Quality of Life is directly proportionate to the conversations, ideas and experiences we accumulate on a daily basis. These in turn come from one three sources – people, books and original thought. Original thought is a rarity, books are not the most easily, naturally preferred source (for most people). Therefore, most often our conversations, ideas and experiences are sourced from other people.
- Like a slow-acting drug (regardless of whether it is rejuvenating or destructive) the people around us nudge us ever so slowly in some direction. That’s for sure. The words we use, the thoughts we think, the choices we make and the limits we impose (or not impose) on ourselves is to a large degree determined by the people in our immediate circle.
- We have two choices that can positively serve us – either choose a peer group that is aligned with our values and vision. Or we raise the quality of values and vision of our existing peer group thru sheer personal power.
- The only other option is to continue to stick with our current people and/or let people ‘happen’ to us. That’s a dangerous slippery slope.
- Most of us have been conditioned to approach money from an angle of loss-minimization instead of gain-maximization.
- We grow up believing it is incredibly difficult to create and increase wealth.
- We naturally believe there’s something wrong with desiring for and pursuing wealth.
- And since we have been sold the idea that wealth is essentially a zero-sum game, we must guard whatever we have with all we have got – sacrificing our health and time, never sharing or giving it to those less privileged.
- There’s nothing wrong with finding happiness in the comforts money has to offer – there’s everything wrong with feeling unhappy if those comforts leave or elude you.
- These models of reality leave us in a state of perpetual wanting, never having enough and chronically dissatisfied.
- The more you loosen your mental hold on money, the easier money goes on you.
The above model on Quality of Life addresses only a tiny bit in the big puzzle of contentment, that too only at a material level.
The mental models that explain our world must keep changing (or must be deliberately updated and upgraded) depending on the level at which we function. It is entirely possible that my understanding (and yours) of time, work, money and people would dramatically change once our plane of mental functioning is elevated.