The Pursuit of Contentment

2019 has been quite a year thus far.

Over the first five-plus months of this year I’ve undergone some pretty major life changes:

  • I dealt with my first heartbreak after my engagement ended shortly after New Year’s.
  • I started and quit a good job in Montana, all in the span of a month and a half.
  • Since October of 2018, I’ve lived in three different states, moving from Moscow, Idaho to Missoula, Montana, then to Tri-Cities, Washington.
  • I’ve accumulated exponentially more credit card debt than I ever have before, and at one point had less than $100 to my name, a place I haven’t been financially since college.
  • I moved back in with my parents for a brief stint after having lived on my own for the past 6 years or so.
  • I moved into a house by myself recently, living completely alone for the first time in nearly three years.
  • I started a new job in the Tri-Cities in a slightly intimidating industry I’ve never worked in before in my life.

As a person that has never cared for abrupt change, and has suffered with cyclical depression my entire adult life, this has been a particularly taxing start to the year.

In the process, I’ve allowed myself to slip into some bad habits and old vices. I drink more than I should. I watch way too much Netflix. I wallow in self pity, allowing myself to succumb to the false narrative that for some reason my problems are special and different from other people’s problems (they’re not).

I’ve at times muted the good things in my life, like having a wonderful support system in my family, finding a decent and cheap house to rent from a family friend, making good headway on a fiction project that’s very important to me, and landing an excellent job so quickly in the Tri-Cities.

Also, my writing has suffered (in terms of time spent working on my craft). I nearly abandoned my blog altogether, and have made only two blog posts in 2019. It’s June.

As I mentioned, I did however make some very good headway in my aforementioned fiction project, a positive that for some reason I often choose to overlook.

However, after moving into my new place and starting my new job, both in early April, my writing went by the wayside altogether for a stint, including working on my fiction project. It started to feel like a chore that I was procrastinating on. At times, I’ve gone as far as wondering if I really like writing at all (that was the depression and self deprecation talking, another very false narrative).

So, for the past couple months I’ve hardly written a word. Even my daily journaling practice, which I picked up in early January, has become something I would get to maybe once a week, most of the time deciding that I don’t have anything to write about (which is a lie), or that I simply don’t feel like it.

I have however been reading a lot, and have begun listening to audiobooks during my work commute, so again, this is a positive that I oftentimes choose not to give myself credit for.

In essence, what I’m getting at here, is that I’ve been off kilter, out of sorts, improperly calibrated. I’ve allowed external factors to reshape my entire outlook, and lost ground on the things that I’d been working so hard to build. Things I’d been working to build in the pursuit of that one thing we all find ourselves pursuing: Happiness.

The pursuit of happiness.

It’s that thing everyone wants, everyone chases, and few (if any, in the true sense of the word) truly ever find. The pursuit of happiness is deeply ingrained in western culture, and finding true, unflinching happiness, is unfortunately, probably not a real thing. It likely doesn’t exist in the sense that many of us hope it does.

There are always ebbs and flows, and ongoing happiness is, if we’re being honest with ourselves, a myth.

Social media and our celebrity culture would like to convince us that it’s attainable, but its not.

Now, before you get on me for being a pessimist, hear me out, because that’s not what this is about.

I’m not saying we’re all doomed to live in misery, absolutely not. What I’m arguing is that our expectations that our toiling will bring us enduring happiness is misguided, that the pursuit of happiness in the sense our culture portrays it only serves to make us miserable, or discontent.

Happiness is fleeting, and many of us may need to reframe our expectations when it comes to happiness. Even the most depressed people typically can find fleeting moments of happiness in everyday life. On the flip side, sadness is an emotion that even the “happiest” people on earth experience from time to time.

Happiness, in the sense that many people dream of, is a state of ongoing, sustained joy, and as I mentioned, is perpetuated in social media. Just open Instagram, and chances are you’ll be flooded with images of people living their best lives, day in and day out, mile-wide smiles, pristine lakeside views, incredible selfies at the top of a mountain, bikinis, beaches, and margaritas, and all those things that we equate to the “good life”.

My Instagram page itself is flooded mostly with the best pictures I’ve taken on my hiking escapades. I’ve been asked more than once if I go for hikes everyday in order to get so many beautiful pictures.

In reality, I go for hikes two or three times a month (sometimes more, some particularly busy months not at all), only on days I don’t have to go to work, and stockpile my pictures, going back to old adventures sometimes two or three years in the past to share on my Instagram page.

I don’t intend to deceive people into thinking I’m the reincarnation of John Muir, tumbling through nature every waking moment, but that’s the impression that social media’s lack of context can give. And how could someone NOT be happy going on all these adventures and seeing all these new and exciting things?

Another facet to this situation is the idea that we need to be chasing our dreams at all costs, something I bought into for a long time. We crave stories of people quitting their jobs, living in squalor as the starving artist, climbing up from the bottom, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and scratching and clawing their way to the top through hard work and determination.

And yes, these stories do exist, and they can be motivational. However, the number of people who have actually lived that narrative are a microscopic fraction of people in comparison with the lives of most people, including successful people living fulfilling lives, I might add.

Many people who are in their thirties, twenties, as well as today’s youth, have grown up in a society urging us to chase our dreams. While this is not inherently a bad thing, what it has done for many people is it has created the feeling that if we don’t achieve our wildest dreams, we will never achieve that thing we’re all chasing: happiness. It implies that there’s something wrong with learning a trade or working a job that won’t deliver some storybook lifestyle that usually doesn’t really exist in the real world.

Thus, a false expectation is created, and if we aren’t living out our wildest dreams, then we could never achieve happiness, which contributes to and exacerbates issues like anxiety and depression.

And that’s the crux of the problem. Sustained, ongoing happiness isn’t something that is attainable, nor realistic, anyways.

The thing that I believe is attainable, even if we don’t achieve all of our dreams and goals, is contentment.

No, contentment is not sexy. You’re never going to see a sexy, shiny, exciting commercial using the idea of contentment to sell cars or expensive vacations.

But for me, especially as I crawl deeper into adulthood, contentment sounds pretty damn good. Contentment can look different for different people, but for me, it looks something like this:

  • Live financially comfortably, and someday, debt free.
  • Write and/or teach writing for a living.
  • Live in a place and a home that I like.
  • Have the time and freedom to experience nature and the outdoors on a regular basis.
  • To not succumb to my vices when depression kicks in.
  • Meet a woman with whom I can share a stable relationship.
  • Experience more happy moments than sad moments.

Right now some of these goals even seem lofty, but with time, I believe they’re all completely attainable. And you’ll notice that the word “happy” only comes in once at the bottom of the list, and is characterized in moments rather than anything that sustains.

Contentment should not be confused with complacency, either. It’s not an excuse to give up on your big dreams or to not work hard. You’ll notice that my long term career goal remains as it has for many years; for writing in some way or another to be the focal point of my career one day. That may take years, or even decades, to accomplish, or I may never fully accomplish it, but it is still a major overarching goal in my life.

Thus, contentment is not about giving up on your dreams and goals, its about creating an outlook on life that is one, more realistic, and two, where if you don’t achieve those goals, your whole world wont be shattered.

And one last, very important point I want to drive home is this: sadness or feeling down will always be a part of your life. And that’s ok. Its natural, just a part of the human condition. There is no point you can reach in your life where occasionally you wont feel down. The idea is to feel good, or content, more often than you feel down, and not allow the down times to envelop us.

To wrap up, I don’t want to tell anyone how they should be living their life, and whether they should be shaping their dreams and aspirations toward all-encompassing happiness or a tamer concept like contentment. I am in no position to be telling people how they should be living their lives, as I’m just as messed up, if not more so, than the next person.

All I want to do is share my struggles, and a little bit about how I’m trying to dig myself out of the hole I’ve found myself in.

I hope to write more blog posts going forward. I wont make any promises like I have in the past, but I will say that I hope to rebuild my writing practice and start to build some consistency.

With that, I hope you all have a wonderful week, and feel free to leave a comment with anything you may have been struggling with, or thoughts you have on this. Or, you can email me directly if you need to bend someone’s ear. I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. – Recent reads that I highly recommend:

The Names of the Stars by Pete Fromm (memoir)

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (memoir)

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (fiction)

The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (fiction)

4 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Contentment

  1. We really need to get together soon, Josh and I constantly think about you.
    Your and amazing person and we pray that all goes well for you. I dont know you much but let me just tell you that from all that Josh tells me about you and how highly his mother and fathet talk about you, i feel like i have known you for ever.
    Life is hard and i know how hard it is to have depression so i can relate.
    I too had a bad patch in my life and i was so happy when i meet josh and i know that the only way to heal a broken heart is with time and patience.
    But just know that we are always here for you. If you ever just need to vent or talk we are here for you. 🙂
    Time will heal it all and you might be surprised what the future holds for you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Chely, that all means so much to me. You and Josh have an incredible relationship and are both such caring individuals, and even though we dont see each other much I appreciate both of you more than you know! And yes, we do need to get together soon!! Have Josh get a hold of me and let me know when is a good time for you guys, because I know you guys are super busy between work and raising your wonderful children! Love you guys!

      Like

  2. I’ve wondered how you were doing. I’ve been in the same places. Right now we have a granddaughter and I guess I wonder sometimes if I’ll be around to see her grow up, but that’s not for me to know.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Don’t be the Miserable Dick | Brent Atkinson

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