Contentment vs. Striving

Both contentment and goal-setting are lauded as positive by society. Yet they seem very much like opposites. If you’re content, why are you striving to reach goals? If you’re striving to reach goals, does that mean you’re not content?

Let’s examine the issue. What is your reason for goal-setting? How do you know if your goals are worthy and are coming from a positive place? Is your motivation internal or external? What positives will reaching the goal bring into your life? Is it a lasting or temporary positive?

Be honest with yourself about why you’re setting a certain goal and whether the motivation comes from a place of good faith or insecurity. For example, wanting to lose weight because your BMI is dangerously high, you have trouble breathing after walking up one flight of stairs, or your knees have started to hurt are all healthy reasons to want to lose weight. But losing weight in order to catch your crush’s eye is not. The first set of reasons are in the spirit of self-care and self-love and have lasting positive effects. The second reason is due to feelings of inferiority, of not being “good enough”. And even if you do lose weight and win over your crush, a relationship based on looks is unstable, dehumanizing, bound to cause resentment on your part, and can be easily severed by the introduction of someone who is even better-looking. In other words, the effects are temporary. Likewise, setting a goal to make an A this quarter instead of a B is a worthy, healthy goal if it’s springing from yourself instead of your parents and is due to you knowing you are capable of making a better grade. In this case, the goal emanates from your knowledge that you are highly capable, intelligent, hard-working, and an A is within your grasp. On the contrary, giving in to your parents or professor and setting a goal to make an A when you used all your talents, skills, abilities, and other positive traits to make the B, is self-defeating, self-sabotaging, and inherently comes from a place of seeking to placate others by admitting to the falsehood that you’re not good enough as you are.

Is it lazy to be content? Should you always be goal-setting? Feeling contented (fulfilled, satisfied) when you already have what you need is often an indication you have not given in to societal standards that urge you to always be buying, upgrading, competing, and climbing life’s “ladder of success.” And goal-setting should not be considered inherently positive. Contentment and striving are not necessarily mutually-exclusive. You can feel content but also set goals. If you don’t meet the goals you set for yourself, does your unconditional positive-regard for yourself become diminished? It shouldn’t if you are truly content. If so, reappraise the motivation and origin of your goals. Are your goals the result of self-hate, lack of confidence, not feeling like you measure up, or not feeling like you play an important role in the world? This might mean self-care and introspection should take place in the immediate and goals set on the “back burner” until they can be re-evaluated when you are in a healthier and more loving frame of mind towards yourself. According to the Buddha, “the root of suffering is attachment”.

Happiness should be a positive effect of contentment and goal-achieving. It should not be the goal, itself. It should be the means, not the end. Striving for happiness is the best, fastest way to rob yourself of contentment. Happiness is an amorphous, abstract concept, and therefore, it’s easy to chase it your whole life. Instead, ensuring that you are living in a way concordant with your physical, mental, emotional, intellectual, financial, social, and spiritual health will bring happiness. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”

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