Research strongly suggests that the most people who have reached contentment are those over 55. Some reports say that the over eighties are the most contented of all, which has to be surprising, given known issues of loneliness and health in that particular demographic. Personally, I think it just takes an awfully long time to get good at it.
Like many things, contentment seems to come and go with age and stage. As small kids, we might have been content with a doll which said “Mama.” Throw a lollipop into the mix and we may have reached Nirvana.
Fun was being tickled (I’d deck anyone who thought tickling me was funny nowadays) but contentment was a thumb to suck and a cartoon to watch. Life didn’t get much better. But then, we didn’t know any better.
We hadn’t learned to be insecure or to compare ourselves with others, and inevitably find ourselves wanting. Our parents were a fixture – not negotiable and totally accepted, no matter how good their parenting skills. Even tantrums (the Scottish word is throwing “a stooshie,” a wonderful verbal stamp of rebellion) could be practiced from a place of confidence. You could try your luck but still confidently assumed you’d be loved and cared for afterwards.
For most, contentment and acceptance lasts well into the school years. Barring abuse, personal crisis or illness, it can last right up until we start to question and doubt our place in the world.
With my kids, the erosion of contentment didn’t seriously take hold until the early teenage years, which was roughly the same as myself. Comparison can be cruel and when I, or they, started to notice and care that others were more popular, wittier or perceived to be more attractive, then contentment flew out the window. Of course it did. How can any sane person be content when they believe they have been dealt a poor hand in relation to others?
As young adults, there’s academic and career success to factor in. Financial success and the ability to buy, buy, buy the outward trappings of success is important. This isn’t so much a privilege through the selfish twenties and insecure thirties, it’s a responsibility, as anyone who has ever paid over the odds for a designer label knows only too well.
You HAVE to have that handbag, coat, car, house, designer pet even. How can you hold your head up in public without it?
I started to build contentment again in my thirties. Ironically, when I had just given birth to my first child and was coming to terms with acquiring a jelly-belly, some spectacularly unsightly veins and an utterly beloved newborn that even I couldn’t escape looked a bit like a myopic monkey.
At that point, I knew without doubt that my wee forceps-born scrap with eczema across his face would lose any bonnie-baby contest on the ward. No competition. But he was MY myopic monkey and contentment came with the certainty that comparison was totally and utterly irrelevant to the love that had unexpectedly filled every insecure crevice of my being.
By my forties, I was back in the ratrace. I had substituted the belly for a personal trainer and an MBA and would spend long hours travelling for work.
I had confidence that I was a cracking hostess and would spend money and time on the right clothes; the right dishes and in creating fancy food which meant scouring shops for unusual ingredients.
These were the denial years, where busy-ness was such an effective substitute for contentment that I honestly don’t think I knew the difference. It was also a time when friends started to seek antidepressants, have affairs and complain endlessly about being tired.
Exhaustion is not contentment.
So, if I were to guess why the over 50s are reportedly more content, I’d speculate that it’s only once you’ve tried rushing, and comparison and over-achievement that you realise the only person you may be impressing is yourself – and there are much easier ways to achieve that.
When purchases become just more “stuff,” and the hassle of business travel starts to make you feel more grimy than glamorous, the ground is becoming right for the seeds of contentment to be sown.
In fact, it can be one of the most liberating moments of a lifetime when you get tired of living up to somebody else’s ideals of success and have the confidence to say, “That’s not important to me anymore.”
It takes maturity to accept that never being famous is okay. That holding back time is not only doomed to fail but generally looks more desperate than dynamic. And when the scales tip in favour of accepting yourself and your lot; being the best you can be, rather than feverishly trying to be better than someone else, then and only then are the dizzy heights of contentment genuinely on the horizon.
On days when I’m surrounded by idiots or people who fail to treat me the way I would treat them, I will try some or all of these to restore contentment.
I let myself be flawed. I’ll ask permission from a loved one to rant and roar. I might swear or say unspeakably uncharitable things but I’ll aim to send myself up; to become a caricature of an angry person until I make myself and the listener laugh. It gets it out of my system so it doesn’t fester.
I let others be flawed. I try really hard (sometimes it takes days or weeks) to forgive the person I believe has wronged me. It’s not for their sake, it’s for mine as I find it much easier to live with forgiveness than resentment. It also bestows the moral high ground and delivers utterly ridiculous fantasies that I might, in fact, be saintly.
I let the world be flawed. I stop railing against how things “ought” to be and try working for the best outcome amongst how things really are. Anything else is naïve and doomed to failure. Besides, sometimes I decide NOT to settle and then it’s game on.
And if all that fails, I eat chocolate.
I’m not yet eighty and a Ninja.