Our fear of contentment

“Are you happy?”

Recently, I asked my client this question on day 1 of our executive coaching retreat.

He said: “yeah, I think I am quite happy.”

I responded: “I am not interested how happy you think you are, but really how happy do you feel?”

“Well, I feel pretty successful. I think I am contributing great things in this world and….”

“No”, I interrupt him. I didn’t ask what you think you contributed. I asked: “Do you feel a sense of happiness? Do you have moments where you feel a deep level of contentment with how things are and how you are? That profound peace of mind where in that moment ‘nothing is really wrong or needs to be fixed’?”

“Contentment? Hmmm, I have never thought of contentment. Doesn’t that mean that you stop growing and learning?”

I have heard this argument many times before. Somehow there is a part inside of us that is scared of being content. Of just being happy with what we have, with who we are. It would make us passive and unproductive.

Somehow happiness is not really top of mind for a lot of successful executives.

In his latest book ‘Triggers’, leadership thinker Marshall Goldsmith asked the Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, Dr. John Noseworthy, the president of the Mayo Clinic and the Dr. Raj Shah administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) one simple question: “Did you recently do your best to be happy?”

All three smart, heavily credentialed men looked confused in silence when this question was asked. In separate conversations they all responded: “It never occurred to me to try to be happy”.

Why does it seem that somehow happiness and success in our career often seem mutually exclusive? A lot of the executives that we coach at the Asian Leadership Institute do not exhibit the characteristics of happiness, although many say they are quite happy.

How about practicing more moments of contentment? Sink into that state where you feel that actually everything is OK right now. You don’t need to be over-the-moon excited. Just be content with perhaps a soft smile. Yes, we have a million things that we can do and should do, but let us savour a bit of fulfilment right now for where we are right now.

The photo above is actually a photo of a calligraphy that is above my bed. It reminds me every morning and evening that I have already so many conditions for happiness right here and now. Whether it’s the fact that I can walk, breathe, see this beautiful planet, the amazing sunset, have a family that is alive and have the opportunity to help other people. I certainly don’t touch this feeling every day, but the reminders help.

Practicing happiness and contentment seems almost radical these days in some contexts. Many of us prefer victimhood or complaining about how much still needs to be done. Giving up temporarily the seeking and grasping mind is not common practice. And yes, there are benefits to that peace of mind that this practice creates, but I actually encourage you to not see this practice as a means to an end this time. Consider it ‘the end’ itself just like I wrote before around the practice of uselessness.

I invite you to practice in-the-moment contentment for a week and see what it does. This is irrespective of how much challenge or drama is happening right now in your life. Just connect with the elements and conditions that you have already to be happy and content about. You can even start writing down all the conditions and you’ll see the list is long once you focus your attention on it.

Then after practicing contentment, ask yourself: Am I getting really less productive? Am I growing and learning less? Give it a try. Set up an experiment and assess with candor afterwards.

Mindful regards,

Gaston, Coach, Asian Leadership Institute