‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’: The Key to Contentment, According to Wisdom of the Past

March 7, 2020 Updated: March 15, 2020

“If only ___ , then I’d be happy.”

Did your mind fill in that blank when you read it? Perhaps, it was “I lost 20 pounds,” “I made more money,” “I had a nicer house,” “I met my soulmate,” “I was prettier/taller/skinnier/more fit,” or “I liked my job.”

The “if only” mindset keeps you stranded in life’s perpetual waiting room. You sit there waiting for the life you want to show up. In the meantime, life goes on—seemingly passing you by as your mind is elsewhere. 

What if you didn’t have to wait for your “if only” scenario to materialize to be happy? What if one “if only” leads to another, with satisfaction nowhere in sight? The truth is, your life is happening right now, and you can find joy in it if you so choose.

It’s common to hang on to “if only.” People have been doing so for ages, and some of the best thinkers throughout time have shared their ideas on the matter. Let’s take a look at what those sages said.

“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy. It’s what you think about it.” —Dale Carnegie

Fundamentally, the “if only” mindset is just that—a mindset. Having goals and aims in life is, of course, great, but you can enjoy the journey to achieving them and the life in between as well. Look for the good in your life now and make note of, as Carnegie puts it, “how you think about it.”

“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” —Lao Tzu

Often, we feel discontent because we aren’t getting the feedback, the acceptance, or the praise we yearn for from others. True contentment, though comes from within. What if you let go of the need for eternal validation?

“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Inherent in “if only” is a sense of control over our circumstances. Of course, we aren’t in control of everything and can only control ourselves. What’s more, we aren’t omniscient. Perhaps a better fate than our imagined “if only” awaits us.

Allow room in your life for the unknown and learn to roll with the ups and downs as they come.

“He who is not contented with what he has would not be contented with what he would like to have.” —Socrates

Perhaps, you’ve experienced achieving a goal in the past, one you had said “if only” about. Once achieved, though, your happiness was temporary. You soon conjured a new threshold for “if only.” 

The key to contentment in life is finding it in the here and now.

“The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our dispositions, and not upon our circumstances.” —Martha Washington

Happiness is rarely something that magically befalls us, but something we choose to experience. What are you choosing?

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” —Epictetus

It’s easy to look around and find others who seem to have more and better fortunes. Of course, it’s difficult to know the true blessings or misfortunes others have experienced in life. More importantly, though, comparison, as they say, “is the thief of joy.” Minimizing desires is the path to real good fortune.

“True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and it is rare.”—Gilbert K. Chesterton

There is good to be found in everything. How much joy, wonder, beauty, and goodness might we encounter if we accepted the life that presents itself before us and simply aimed to extract as much potential from it as possible?

“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”—Lao Tzu

Your life is happening right now. “If only” you could appreciate it for how wondrous it actually is.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza