If you travel to poorer parts of the world, you may notice an interesting phenomenon: People can find happiness and contentment with very little in the way of material things.
In my office, I like to display a book that I have owned for many years, Peter Menzel’s Material World. In it, photographers traveled to thirty different countries around the world to spend time with a family that was considered “average” based on that nation’s economy. At the conclusion of the visit, the family and photographer pulled every single material belonging the family owned out in front of their dwelling to take a photo.
You can imagine the differences between households in the developed Western world compared to less-developed countries. Thinking about it is one thing, but actually seeing a photograph really drives home the point. If you haven’t seen this book, I highly recommend it.
So why is it that some people can be very content and happy and can lead a very satisfying life without all the stuff? What makes it so difficult to be content with less? I have a few theories.
The Joneses strike again
One reason I think people feel discontent with what they own is comparison and competition. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I completely agree. Have you ever watched kids deal with comparison? Receiving a cookie, they are overcome with happiness until they see that their sibling has two cookies. Suddenly one cookie is simply not enough.
If we are truthful with ourselves, adults often behave the same way. We might be perfectly happy with our home, our yard, our belongings – until we notice what is on the other side of the fence. Those dastardly Joneses have one-upped us again! As quickly as we realize we’ve been bested by the Joneses, our happiness switches to discontent.
It is impossible to be insulated entirely from knowing what others have/do/are, so what can we do? The only approach is to actively practice gratitude. Gratitude builds a buffer around that contentment “off” switch. If we routinely practice positive thinking and feel grateful about what WE have/do/are, we can avoid turning off our happiness in favor of discontent.
Advertising professionals get paid big bucks for a reason: They excel at the work of understanding how to tell stories that correlate to how we humans think and behave. Clydesdale horses, for example, are not sad or sentimental creatures. So why is it that a well-told story about the hard work of the Clydesdales causes us to tear up? And why is it that our emotional reaction to these hard-working horses leads us to have warm happy feelings toward a particular brand of beer and choose it over many others?
If you aren’t a beer commercial aficionado, how about ANY advertisement featuring a mom? We’re made to feel guilty for not calling our mothers or sending them flowers. Beneath the advertising is a reminder of how warm and safe mothers kept us when we were young.
Advertising can create warm, fuzzy feelings, or feelings of frustration and anger. Whatever emotion motivates us to buy a product or service is at the heart of effective advertising messaging. And these messages influence our desire to have things we don’t already possess. We suddenly must have the thing that will make our life easier, give us a more fulfilling life, make us more beautiful, or help us make the Joneses jealous (Because it works both ways!).
You may try to avoid advertising. In reality, if you wanted to sidestep all advertising, you’d find yourself living in a cave and never leaving. Of course, you can try to avoid the obvious places for ads like television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the internet.
But ads are everywhere. Walk along a city street? You’ll see ads in store windows, posted on placards, and blasted across bus stop shelters. Get mail? Junk mail needs no introduction, but there are also ads that come as inserts in the routine mail we receive. Doctor offices, dentist offices, fill-in-the-blank offices are all filled with advertising, however subtle it might be.
Identifying advertising messages is an endless exercise but here’s an important marketplace you frequent regularly — grocery stores. Even though you may feel numb to receiving advertising messages, grocery stores are filled with sneaky ways to encourage us to buy certain products. And I’m not talking about broccoli.
It is human nature to want to better yourself and provide for your family in the best way possible. This instinct is a good one, as it helps us seek out safe accommodations, healthy food, and steady work. But this wired-in protectiveness and nurturing combined with constant messaging about how someone else has it better can turn a positive instinct into an unhealthy state of discontent.
It is working with human nature that we can make the greatest strides toward achieving contentment.
Separate needs from wants. Recognizing exactly what we need for our households – shelter, clothes, and food, for example — is the first step. It’s not that wants are evil, but we should be crystal clear on the difference between what we actually need versus what we want. Teaching this discernment to our children is also critical.
Use your instincts for good. Harness that strong human urge to improve your lot in life and direct it in a positive way. Instead of wanting to do better and get rich merely to have more stuff, reframe your ambition so you’re working to accomplish more financial security and to help the less fortunate.
Feed your head. Because we are hard wired to improve our lot, this should come easy. But alas, it doesn’t. All of the external pressures make it tough to zero in and focus. Nevertheless, if you determine you want what is best for your mind, you can more easily avoid those pesky advertising messages. Think of improving yourself and your life by feeding your head only healthy messages.
How to develop the super power of contentment
Being content with life creates a very powerful place from which to interact with the world. But how can we make contentment into a super power? To stick with my Super Power analogy, here are some silly (but effective!) things to do.
Wear your bullet-proof bracelets. I love Wonder Woman, and I always have. Use Wonder Woman to help you focus on contentment! Pretend you are wearing (or actually wear) some bracelets that you’ve endowed with the power to repel harmful advertising messages. If you struggle with falling prey to advertising while out shopping, put on your bracelets (actually or metaphorically) before entering the store. Visualize those messages coming at you from all sides only to be repelled by your magic bracelets. Nothing gets through those things!!
Discover and then avoid your kryptonite. We all have our personal kryptonite — those items or scenarios where we become weak in the knees and cannot fight the power of consumerism. Do you know what your sources of kryptonite are? Name them and then avoid them as much as possible.
Use the truth lasso. She’s my favorite, so Wonder Woman gets two mentions here! Advertising messages are sometimes so masterful, we don’t know we’re being sold something. Or without our realizing it, we are being sold something entirely different than the product being displayed. Next time you encounter an attractive advertisement, wrap that lasso around it and squeeze. What are you REALLY trying to sell me, you evil ad for perfume? It’s not about smelling good. It is about being attractive and sexy. Busted!
Develop your Spider Sense. Whether you know you are heading into a tempting situation or not, work to develop a sixth sense about it. Know thyself. Be aware when you are falling into the trap of coveting what the Joneses have. Finely tune your ability to quickly dial in to exactly why you are feeling a lack of something in your life. Have those replacement thoughts ready to lead you back to a place of gratitude and abundance.
To be content is to be impervious to the biggest temptations of a material world. To be content is to find joy in your here and now. To be content is to be at peace and experience gratitude. Teach your mind daily to harness the super power of contentment.
Is contentment your super power? If not, what steps can you take today to develop it? Share your thoughts below. Or if you want some like-minded friends, join the free SimpleMoney Community on Facebook to share your stories!
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