Discontentment is a feeling that I struggle with on a regular basis. It’s a common vice for Americans to be discontent with the things that they have – wanting a bigger house, a better car, a more important job – but my discontentment takes on a very specific character: the nagging worry that I’m not doing enough, not performing well enough, not working hard enough. This discontent makes it hard for me to feel a sense of accomplishment in my work or family life. Weekends and holidays, instead of being times to relax and have fun with my family, are spent worrying when I’ll have enough time to work on side projects (like this blog).
I’m terrible at being sick. I cancel my plans, then immediately think, “Free time! There’s so much I can get done!”
— Mike Hickerson (@mhick) March 1, 2014
The other day, my wife challenged me on this. “Just relax,” she said. “It’s okay to have downtime.” She’s right, of course, but it’s still difficult for me to accept that truth.
Can others relate to this nagging feeling of discontment? As I reflected on this struggle, I realized that my discontent was both a blessing and a curse: it motivated me to keep trying new things (sometimes entire new careers), but it also often kept me from enjoying the fruit of these new experience. The constant worry that I ought to be doing something more important also prevents me from focusing on the moment in front of me.
Evaluate the roots of your discontentment
If you, like me, experience this sense of discontentment, where does it come from? It likely has a mixture of both positive and negative origins. Simply because it’s an uncomfortable feeling doesn’t mean that it’s not an appropriate feeling. Yet, by its very nature, discontentment often springs from motives that are less than pure.
- Do you envy others’ possessions or achievements? I’ll admit it: on many occasions, my discontent is triggered by seeing or reading about someone else’s success. It’s fine to be motivated to do well by others’ success — but this isn’t that.
- Does your discontentment arise out of negative self-talk? A few years ago, during a period of cognitive behavioral therapy, I realized how much of my internal dialogue was focused on negativity, complaint, and self-criticism. This self-talk isn’t based in reality, but on my false perceptions of myself.
- Does your discontentment motivate you, or pressure you to give up? Discontent can be a healthy thing, if it helps drive you to work harder or more consistently toward valuable goals. On the other hand, if it simply makes you feel guilty, ashamed, or depressed, then it’s unhealthy.
- Is your discontentment directed at yourself, or something outside of yourself? Bill Hybels has written about holy discontent – frustration with some aspect of the broken world that motivates you to change the world for the better. Is your discontent directed at fixing something that will help other people, or is it primarily about dissatisfaction with yourself?
Identify concrete steps to improve — where appropriate
This next question can be a good clue to whether your discontentment is healthy or unhealthy:
- Can you identify clear, specific next steps to act on your discontentment?
This isn’t sufficient, though, because there are all sorts of unhealthy motivations that have very clear next steps, such as eating disorders. So some follow-up questions are necessary:
- What would you have to give up in order to act on those next steps?
- Is the ultimate goal, or any of the intermediate steps, something that your loved ones would support?
Many times, when I feeling pressure to do more, I try to break the feeling down into concrete action steps, and discover that I can’t. There isn’t anything that I can do differently, which suggests that my discontentment is really a form of anxiety that I need to address in other ways.
Sometimes, though, I find that there are specific things that I can do. A while back, I was feeling bad about my workout routine — or, rather, my lack of a workout routine. With a little bit of thought and planning, I was able to come up with a workout schedule that I’ve been (mostly) able to stick with. Other issues, though – wanting to be taller, for example – are completely outside my control. Worry over them is misspent energy.
At this point, you should again assess your motivations. Let’s say that you aren’t satisfied with your house or your car. Maybe it’s because your family has needs that aren’t being met by the current situation. But maybe it’s because you want others to see you in a certain way, and you think that others’ perceptions will help you feel better about yourself.
Accept your limitations — and rest
In most cases of discontentment, though, I don’t think the answer lies in coming up with a better plan. Instead, the answer is to be more content. Accept the limitations of how much time you have, how much ability you have, and be satisfied with what you have of both.
That’s a classic example of “easier said than done.” Further, you have to be aware of the danger on the other end of the spectrum – accepting false limitations as an excuse to not work as hard or as intelligently as you could. But that’s probably not the problem for as many of us as we’d like to think.
In our obsession with what else we could be doing, what are missing? How many times have I missed (mentally) the chance to play with my kids because I was thinking about what else I could be using that time for? How many times have I missed a beautiful moment, or an opportunity to rest and enjoy God’s Creation, or simply to have a good conversation because I was trying to be more productive?
More times than I like to admit. Seeking contentment is not an easy task, but I’m going to make the effort.
Photo credit: Andy Young via Flickr