Thursday, August 18, 2011

Approaches to Finding Contentment


I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
-Philippians 4.11-13

A couple of weeks ago, Wifey and I began wading into the advertising morass better known as the hit TV series Mad Men. The basic premise of the show is rooted in the perpetual malcontent besetting American consumers. The shows 'Ad Men' are successful if they can convince consumers to buy their clients' products, and to do so they must also persuade consumers that they they need the wares being sold.

Consumer malcontent is a funny thing. There's a logical argument that if Americans would actually spend more of their money, or act on their material discontent during tough economic times, then this would stimulate a consumer driven economy, allowing American companies across various sectors to produce more goods, and hire more workers.

Yet, the consumer trend of late seems to be that austere times call for austere measures. This results in consumers being more apt to stay home, saving their money, rather than going out to spend it. Of course, reduced demand leads to a glut in supply, which means less money coming into the sellers' coffers. Rational business persons respond by reducing their workforce to compensate for lost profits. This leads to spiraling unemployment, and cyclical markets. (FYI, the Dow gained 700 points in the past five days, only to see those gains largely erased this afternoon in a matter of hours, closing at a 419 point loss.)

My point is that our Nation's economic plight can largely be chalked up to the contentment of consumers. The rule, then, is that the more discontent people are, the better off the markets will be. A corollary to this rule would be that our Nation's economic prospects are eminently tied to the lot of us being miserable, and seeking cures in material goods. It wasn't by mistake that Apple became the world's most valuable company.

The incongruity of the market view of contentment is that it applies a quantitative analysis to what is inherently a qualitative conundrum. As a species, mankind is prone to seek contentment through a number of venues that are not necessarily related to spending at all. One blog that I read frequently, advises people to seek contentment through living a minimalist life. This invites a number of questions, but the basic point is to spend money on experiences, and invest in relationships, rather than spending money on things.

Another blogger and friend takes almost the opposite approach to minimalism. Whereas a minimalist would advise chunking the daily planner and living life in the moment without the strictures of a schedule, my friend finds contentment through following a disciplined routine. He takes great care, most mornings, to get up early and enjoy the wee, small hours of the day. He claims this is the best time for engaging the creative faculties of the mind. The notion of contentment through routine is strikingly similar to a career blogger I read, who advises women to follow her detailed "Blueprint for a Woman's Life" to the letter.

I'm not sure that either extreme 'corners the market' on finding contentment. Aside from being qualitative rather than quantitative, contentment is almost an entirely subjective state of being. My dog finds contentment in her red Kong Toy. Some people claim that they can escape their troubles simply by riding a bike. Others try to find contentment by preserving as much of the present as possible, even to the point of absurdity.

I like to think that contentment has a way of finding me, even when I don't realize it. A lot of times I get restless with where I am in life, second guessing decisions, wondering about what might have been under a different set of circumstances. But then I read stories that really make me appreciate being alive in general. Just today, I read about a couple from NYC, struggling to rebuild their lives after a tragic bike accident. The facts are too long to recount here, but what went from a simple ride to a concert quickly turned into a life-changing event.

I also think about people like food blogger Jennie Perillo. I assume Ms. Perillo is more than financially secure. She's been apprenticed in some of the finest restaurants in the world. And she has successfully promoted her website in the National media, making her a minor-culinary celebrity. Yet, her lone request on the blog last week was that readers make a pie in honor of her late husband Mikey, who she unexpectedly lost to a massive heart attack days before.

My intent is not to glory in other people's tragedies. And there's really no big picture lesson from all of this because I think we each have to arrive at a place of contentment on our own terms. My basic and subjective observation is that my lot really isn't so bad when I take a step back. Sure, I'd like to make more (viz., any) money, but Wifey and I get by. We both have our health and each other. Soon, my academic program will end, capping a lengthy quest to earn the title "Dr." before my name.

In the mean time, I plan to eat a little slower, sample some microbrews, and spend more time doing the things I love - like reading, writing, cycling, and working on Prestige 15 in Call of Duty, Black Ops. I don't know that this is exactly what St. Paul had in mind when he penned the verse above, but it works for me. Maybe my suggestion about contentment is to do what works for you.

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Maira Gall