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Purpose

285 – Ambition or Contentment

One of the key aspects of stoicism is to be content with what we have. So how does this balance with ambition? If you are content, does that mean that you shouldn’t be striving to accomplish your goals? Today I want to talk about how stoicism can help you accomplish your goals while still finding contentment in your daily life.

"The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately."

— Seneca

One question that I get from time to time is how do balance ambition with the stoic teaching of contentment? Meaning, if we’re supposed to be content with how our life is and accept it for exactly what it is, how do you work hard and achieve the goals you want to accomplish in your life?

This is an interesting paradox to consider, because it seems like they are in opposition of one another. If you are content with what you have, does that mean that you become apathetic? If you are striving to accomplish your goals, does that mean that you are discontent with what you have?

Contentment

"Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens."

— Epictetus

First, let’s dig into the definitions for each of these things. What does it mean to be content? Does it mean that you simply accept life as it is? Does it mean that you’re docile and just let life happen?

Often people think that contentment means that we are happy with life as it is and don’t want things to change. But that’s the thing, life will change. As soon as we are content with life as it is at a particular moment, things change. We can’t just be content with life as it is in one static moment because that moment will not last. We need to learn to be content with life as an ever changing process. We need to learn to flow with life as it comes.

Contentment comes from an acceptance and appreciation of what is, of all things in your life whether you consider them positive or negative.

Finding contentment means that we accept life and all its changes and recognize that we have the power to choose how we want to view the events that happen. It means that you choose your perspective and outlook and you don’t let external events and circumstances be the driver of your mood.

Ambition

“Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.”

— Marcus Aurelius

Now let’s talk about ambition. Let’s go with the definition that ambition means that you have specific goals that you are striving to accomplish. It could be that you want excel in your career or you are trying to master a skill. Maybe you want to improve yourself in some way. Does mean that you aren’t content with the way things are?

Where ambition leads to discontent is when we become dependent on the outcome. When we set our happiness upon achieving our goal is where we find the conflict with stoicism. The problem is not that you are discontent with the way things are and are trying to change them. The problem is when we focus on the outcome of our striving, then we set ourselves up for several kinds of unhappiness.

The first is that when we set our happiness on achieving the goal, then it is likely that we won’t be happy while we are striving for our goals because it is still out of our reach. We have decided that we can’t be happy until we get what we want, and you’ve given away your control. You’ve placed your sense of well being outside of yourself. Since the stoics remind us to focus on what you can control, you can only control your perspective and the choices that you make in the present moment.

Another pitfall of setting our happiness on the outcome is what happens if we fail to reach our goal? What if we give it everything we have and still fail? If your happiness is outcome dependent then you are allowing your happiness be dependent on something outside of your control.

Another problem with being dependent on the outcome is that when we actually achieve our goal, then we are often happy for a time, but then we find that happiness fades. Our level of happiness fades to the level it was before we achieved our goal. This is known as the hedonic treadmill. We work hard to get the bonus or the new house only to find that after a while we are just as happy or unhappy as we were before.

Process

"Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well."

— Epictetus

So how do avoid the pitfalls of striving for our ambitions? How do we find contentment without becoming complacent?

When we learn to focus on the process of what we are doing, then we are able to find contentment in it. We work on being happy with our growth and how we are doing something rather than just achieving something. We find joy in learning how to master something. We find contentment in our own improvement, know matter how small.

What about external validation? Again, if we are intrinsically motivated, if we are motivated by our comparison with ourselves rather than needing the validation of others, then we can find contentment. The only person we should competing with is ourselves. Are we better than we were yesterday? Have we made progress?

Now does this mean that if we ignore external validation and comparisons that we’ll achieve our goals?

No.

You could still work really hard on something, enjoy the process, and still not get what you want. But what you will have is control over your happiness. It will not be as dependent on what others think.

The outcome will be what it will be, but your happiness is not affected by the outcome. Because you cannot control the outcome, you can fail, and still be content because you enjoyed the process and did your best. You may not get that promotion. You may not win the race. But your self worth, your contentment will not be dependent on those things.

Another thing to consider is that we can’t develop our virtues of Justice, Wisdom, Temperance, and Courage without engaging with other people. All of these are things that we improve while we work on other things. You don’t gain wisdom by just sitting in your room reading books. You may get knowledge by doing that, but unless you interact with others it’s just knowledge.

The same goes with Courage, Justice, and Temperance. Unless you are busy with life and trying to be useful in the world, you are unable to develop these virtues. How would you know if you have courage if you are never tested? How do you develop temperance without challenges? It is by getting out into the world and trying to better ourselves in all that we do that we improves these virtues, and thereby improve the world.

As an example, say that you wanted to become a leader at your company. In doing so, you’ll have to learn how to work well with others. You’ll need to have wisdom of how to manage other people. You’ll need to learn to be fair with others, and to manage your own moods when things don’t go as planned. By putting yourself out there and trying to achieve your own goals, you’ll have to improve yourself, and in doing so you can make your work environment a much better place for yourself and those you work with. And one of the byproducts of focusing and doing the best you can with each situation as it arises, the more likely you are to succeed.

Enjoy the Present

"Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life."

— Marcus Aurelius

So what can we do to be better about being content while we work towards our goals?

First and foremost, as I’ve mentioned several times in this podcast, we can focus on the How. We do our best to grow and learn when we learn to enjoy the process of doing. When we do this, we let go of the outcome determining whether we are successful or not.

Does this mean that we will be successful?

No.

You can do everything perfectly and still not succeed. That is not a reflection on your character or whether or not you’re a good person or even whether you deserve the outcome you want. An important part of finding contentment in any situation is that you control the things you can and you let go of the things outside of your control.

You can train for decades for the Olympics, be the best in your sport, perform the best you can, and still not win a medal simply because someone else was a little better or conditions where not in your favor. How well someone else does, the decisions a judge makes, and other external factors are all outside of your control.

You can work hard at your job, put in more hours than your peers, and still get passed over for a promotion. You can study for months on end and still fail a test. And you can still find contentment if you don’t let the outcome determine your happiness.

Non-Striving

"True happiness is… to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future."

— Seneca

I think the best way to think about this comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is a former professor of medicine and author of several books including Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. He has been instrumental in bringing mindfulness and meditation into the West, and one of his key ideas is to life a life of non-striving. What he means by non-striving is that rather than constantly trying to strive and push for what you want, if you can develop and attitude of setting out in a direction and taking things as they come, you can approach things in a much more relaxed and positive way.

When you cultivate this way of looking at your life, because you’re not focused on the the outcome of what you’re working on, you are able to deal with any setbacks and challenges as they arise. They are considered part of the process of getting where you want and not things that are stopping you. You are also able to be present and focus at the task at hand, rather than being stuck focused on the future.

In the past I’ve used the example of kayaking on a river. When you’re out on the river, you know the direction you’re going, and you know that you’re going to come across rapids and eddies and other challenges along the way. If you can learn to flow and work with the currents and focus on getting through one challenge after another then you’re more likely to reach your destination and enjoy the ride along the way.

Now does this mean that if you are feeling discontented with where you are, that you are failing?

Not at all. We are emotional beings. We feel emotions even when we have worked hard to master them. Sometimes we feel unsettled for good reasons. The thing is, we need to understand WHY we feel this way. Sometimes we feel discontent because there is an injustice that we see in the world, or we are in a situation such as an unhealthy relationship or a high stress work environment. This could be a deeper signal that we need to change something.

When we feel this way, again, the most important thing we can do is to understand what we can control. Are there things that we can do to improve these situations? What actions can we take? While some things can be improved by changing our mindset around them, there are times when we need to take more drastic actions such as leaving a relationship or finding another job.

Personally, even though I’ve studied stoicism for over 6 years, I still struggle with feeling anxious and discontent with the way things are in my life. Just because I understand these principles doesn’t mean that they are easy to implement. I have to work at it every day because my natural inclination is to get focused on how things will been the future, and about how it will feel once I accomplish the things I’ve set out to do. It takes effort to remind myself to be present and enjoy where I am and what I’m doing and to let the future take care of itself.

Conclusion

We all have goals that we want to achieve in our lives. We have ambitions to be good at something and improve ourselves. When we achieve those goals we have certain sense of satisfaction that may las for a few hours to a few months. But the more that we can be in the present and be content where we are, we can have a sense of satisfaction that becomes part of our everyday lives.

It’s not a choice of being content OR achieving your goals, it’s about being content with where you are on your journey. When you focus your energy and your talents on mastering where you are, you can find contentment at any moment. You can enjoy walking the path. If all you’re focused on is the outcome, then you’re trying to control something that you can’t. Do your best, and let the chips fall where they will.


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Categories
Coffee Break stoicism Tranquility

150 – The Un-Pursuit of Happiness

The Un-Pursuit of Happiness

 

Be Useful!

Do you struggle to find happiness within yourself? Do you despair every time you watch the news? In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how to get over this despair and how pursuing happiness may not be the best to actually finding happiness.

There’s an interesting trend in a lot of things I’ve been reading online, namely a sense of despair, hopelessness, and depression almost manifesting itself as nihilism. And why is this? Why do we feel like we’re in such hard times? Is it that things were better in the past and we’ve just lost our way, as many in some circles seem to think?

If we look at how things were 100 years ago, most people were likely to be farmers, living a life with a lot of hard work keeping farm animals and harvesting crops – certainly not a life of leisure or comfort. If you lived in the city, you were very likely a factory worker, with less than ideal conditions, often with very long hours because there weren’t a lot of labor laws in place.

So why are we, with so much leisure time and modern conveniences, so unhappy?

I think that ironically it’s because as a society, we focus so much on trying to be happy. Now, why would this, the search for happiness, make so many people unhappy? Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do with our lives? It even says in the American Declaration of Independence from the British that we have the right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But that’s the thing – we’re not guaranteed happiness, we’re only given the opportunity to pursue happiness. But I think it’s this dogged pursuit that gives us so much anguish. So why does pursuing happiness not bring happiness? I mean we’re taught from an early age that when we want something that we go out and get it. I think that happiness it a byproduct of doing useful and good things in our lives. When we try to make ourselves happy, we can’t. It’s like trying pet a cat. The more you chase after the cat, the more it runs from you until you stop chasing it and ignore it, then it suddenly shows up trying to snuggle itself right into your face. It isn’t until we stop trying to be happy, and just focus on trying to live a good life, that happiness finds us. Happiness is what happens when we making other plans or while we’re doing other things.

Gratitude

“If what you have seems insufficient to you, then though you possess the world, you will yet be miserable.”

― Seneca

If you were to ask yourself what you want in your life, what would be on that list? Would you list the things that you already have? One of the most important things that I’ve learned in studying stoicism it to be grateful for what we have, and to learn to want what we already have. If we’re always chasing some shiny object to fill that hole inside of us, we’ll always feel empty. Appreciating what we have – a place to live, family and friends, food, even the most basics of things, can immediately improve our level of happiness.

When I was in high school me and my friends used to say, “Wherever you go, there you are.” At the time it was just us being silly. I think we’d heard it on some TV commercial or show, but as I’ve gotten older, I realize that there is a profound truth in it. You can’t ever escape who you are. If you’re unhappy with who you are, if you don’t like yourself, nothing that you have, nothing that you do will ever fix that. Learning to be okay with yourself, learning to love yourself, and be good to yourself, is one of the biggest keys to happiness. I think loving who you are is an overlooked part of loving what you have. To recognize you are worthy of love despite, or maybe even because of your faults, is not an easy thing. But remember, we are all imperfect and messy and full of doubts, and every single one of us is worthy of love.

Purpose

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

— Emerson

I read an essay a while back from Darius Foroux and he proposed that life is not about being happy, it’s about being useful. That idea really struck a chord with me, because when I really think about it, the times in my life when I’ve felt the best are when I’ve taken on the challenges that I’m facing and I work at them, and I make some headway. When I’m serving other people, and I’m trying to help others through their challenges, I feel energized. When I’m working on creating something, whether that’s music or writing or this podcast, I feel like there’s purpose to my efforts. When I’m challenging myself in some way that somehow adds value to the world, I feel like I’m contributing, and that I’m helping move the world forward in some way.

Service

“One cannot pursue one’s own highest good without at the same time necessarily promoting the good of others. A life based on narrow self-interest cannot be esteemed by any honorable measurement. Seeking the very best in ourselves means actively caring for the welfare of other human beings. Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well educated, but to all our human brethren.”

— Epictetus

I think the last, and most important part of allowing happiness to find you, is serving others. When we focus on ourselves and only look after ourselves, we miss out on adding to something to the world. When we only look after our own happiness, remembering that happiness is a byproduct of action, the more we can give to the world, the more chances happiness will have to show up in our lives. Rather than complain about all the things that are wrong with the world, what can you do to be part of the solution? We all have something to offer, some unique talent that the world needs. Even if it’s just showing up and supporting causes that you believe in. Every good movement in the world needs people that are willing to show up.

I know that it seems like there’s so much wrong in the world. I think every age has had its struggles with problems that seem insurmountable and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But remember, you can only do what you can do, and that will be enough. Don’t get discouraged because you can’t save the world in a day. But add something good, be on the positive side of the equation, and know that you’re being part of the solution.

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