CONTENTMENT IS NOT A FOUR-LETTER WORD
Something that often comes up in our physician coaching sessions here at DocWorking is the difficulty doctors sometimes experience with finding contentment.
The dictionary definition of contentment is “a feeling of happiness or satisfaction.” It sounds reasonable that most people would consider this to be a positive and rewarding state of being to aspire to. However, in order to be successful in the high pressure world physicians inhabit, and in order to achieve at the highest level, we come to believe that being content is the same as being complacent. Consequently, many physicians find that claiming contentment can activate feelings of guilt or fear.
Why We Don’t Own It
One of the reasons we feel that we shouldn’t admit – even to ourselves – that we are content, is because we confuse ‘contentment’ with ‘complacency’.
There is a subtle difference between the meaning of contentment and that of complacency (‘a feeling of calm satisfaction with your own abilities or situation that prevents you from trying harder’), which we often miss.
When we conflate complacency and contentment, it robs us of the opportunity to experience feelings of happiness and satisfaction, because we believe that these feelings can only come at the cost of ambition. It’s crucial to remember that the two are not mutually exclusive. You can feel wildly content and fulfilled, and still have work to do towards fulfilling your desires and ambitions.
Modern life can also rob us of the ability to feel content with our lot. Most of us have days that are made up of experiences with the potential to bring us a real sense of contentment. These can often be very simple moments, like hearing our favorite song, or playing in the yard with our dog. What sometimes stops us from experiencing those almost perfect moments at their fullest is, being caught up in our own heads, worrying about the 101 things we have to do once we get home from work, or what happened today in the operating room.
Despite being men and women of science, healthcare professionals can also be a superstitious bunch. Some of us may fear feeling happy and content because we feel like we’re tempting fate, or we feel that it’s just a matter of time before things change for the worse. As rational human beings, we know that all lives have ups and downs, so change is inevitable, but on some level we may feel that if we let our guard down to savor the moment, we might invite negative change in. Brené Brown calls this ‘foreboding joy’.
We regularly come across this attitude in coaching sessions at DocWorking, and our response is, “Guess what? You’re an incredibly brilliant person and physician who is going to be able to handle whatever shows up if the other shoe drops, but by looking around for the shoe to drop, you’re missing out on the experience of living and thriving now.”
Why We Should Allow Contentment In
In our professional lives we may feel like we’re always chasing the next big goal or accolade. But we should allow ourselves to feel good about ourselves and what we’ve already achieved. What is the point of chasing a goal if, as soon as we reach it, we don’t take the time to savor the feeling? We should take a moment to experience how it feels to have achieved that goal, otherwise, we find ourselves on a pointless hamster wheel.
It’s a fallacy to believe that we can mitigate or avoid pain by not enjoying the moment we’re in. All this actually does is wreck our feelings of joy in the now. When we’re afraid of being disappointed, or when we are in fear of losing what we have, we create a barrier between our current state and what could be contentment.
How to Cultivate Contentment
A great way to become aware of our feelings about a situation is to slow down and really pay attention to how we’re feeling in that moment. There’s a lot of psychological research that shows that humans have lost this ability, but it’s important to relearn this skill, as it has a powerful impact on our mindset and our experience of living.
Finding aspects of a situation that we can feel happy about is a powerful way to help us shape our thinking towards success, especially if we have a tendency to let the more negative aspects of our thinking take over in these kinds of situations. Specific situations may have elements that are frustrating, but if we can also see the positive aspects therein, we may be able to achieve a degree of contentment about what’s going on, which will enrich our experience of the situation as a whole.
For example, we may be about to go on an overseas trip. There are a lot of things we and our team need to lock in and get done before we go. The morning before our trip, we wake feeling stressed because we have so much to do before we go and some members of our team haven’t fulfilled our obligations, which will make today more difficult. We feel overwhelmed, irritated, and exhausted. But we can also allow ourselves to feel happy and satisfied about the fact that we’re going overseas.
If we ask ourselves, “what might make this sense of satisfaction or happiness deeper? How might I let myself be a little more content in this particular situation?” we find that our lives are much more vibrant and fulfilled.
When we give ourselves permission to feel these things, an amazing thing happens: we find that the ways we experience the challenges at hand change, and we become better equipped to handle whatever’s thrown at us.
If you want to cultivate contentment in your life and stop thinking of it as a four-letter word, try this: think about parts of your life where you’re experiencing some happiness or some satisfaction, and notice whether you’re willing to claim those feelings. If claiming some satisfaction doesn’t invite you to take some inspired action, think about how you feel when you see a beautiful sunrise or your favorite tree, and just own the sense of peace and calm that thought brings to you. As you begin to practice more, you’ll be really impressed with how much more space contentment is willing to occupy in your life when you pay attention to it.