By Tom Williams
I want you to think how much money you need in order to be comfortable. Not comfortable in your Laser yacht on the way to your gold island, but comfortable in the reasonable, I have all I need and a little bit extra on the side. If you're like most Westerners, your answer is about 1/3 more than you currently make.
No matter how much or little a person earns, chances are they're not content. They need just a little more to feel secure, that they're not behind, always struggling to make the ends meet. This strong association between money and happiness is one of the biggest harms of our Western ways. In England two generations ago, being working class was a badge of honor; there were plenty of people who are poor, but at the same time kept their clothes clean and their lawns tidy, and were generally happy.
In India today, the rickshaw Walla may not have a pair of shoes, but he does have a smile and he reads his newspaper with care and attention. They're content with their lot, happy with their double bed and the pleasures that life offers unexpectedly and without charge to those willing to notice their availability.
Portland has a higher than average percentage of these people too, only here they're called losers. Being labeled as content has a curious twist. It can mean being happy with what you've got; but in the hands of someone who's not happy with you, it can mean unambitious, lazy, and not a good bet for the future. So what makes the difference? And more important, how do you attain the first, which is good, without becoming the second, which is bad?
Just ask yourself two questions:
- Are you proud of your place in the world?
- Are you improving yourself in any way?
Being proud is a lot different than simply not complaining. Being proud means taking care of something you place value on whether or not someone is there to watch it. It's an offshoot of this care that means you show your best when out in the community because you were doing it already. Pride is a good thing, right up until you assume that someone else is lesser than you because they're not doing what you're doing.
If you're not spending energy, then actually you are lazy. There's always something worth working on, and truthfully it doesn't really matter what it is, just making progress towards a goal creates contentment.
There's a political theory that when faced with a problem, Americans change their environment to remove the problem, and Europeans change themselves so it's not a problem anymore. Both methods create contentment: the risk of the American approach is that the change may not be good for everyone else involved; while the Europeans face being taken advantage of should their philosophy become public knowledge.
And when you get that inevitable feeling of discontentment, often on Sunday afternoons, do what I do. Go for a walk, pretend for half an hour that you've lost everything, then go home. If you still feel discontented, then it's probably real you'd better do something about it.