The Oxford English Dictionary defines contentment as the “action of satisfying” or the “process of being satisfied.” Technically, contentment can come at any age. One can be content with a project accomplished and a job well done, but I am thinking about feeling satisfied with life overall. From the vantage point of age 68, I don’t understand how anyone could be content at 30 because of all the unknowns and possibilities ahead. For me, contentment has come with age.
I was never content when I was younger because I believed there was more to come, both joy and sorrow. Over my years, I experienced great moments of happiness: marrying my husband, giving birth to our daughter, success with my chosen career. Yet contentment is different from happiness. Happiness is a high excitement, a thrill, and joy in a moment, whereas contentment is a more placid emotion. Contentment, I think, requires a very strong sense of self and belief that you are fundamentally OK that would not have been possible when I was younger.
Becoming content with life has meant most profoundly accepting myself. Throughout my 20s, 30, 40s, and even 50s, I could not accept my body. I always wanted to be thinner, and a couple of times I unintentionally exercised to the point of self-injury (I never had a disorder, but my obsessive nature didn’t help). Now I am OK with my body as long as it is healthy. If, on vacation in Paris, I indulge in too much cheese and croissants, as I did recently, I now know from experience that, once home, I will revert to a healthy regime. I no longer worry about the cheese and croissants. I have learned to appreciate my own quirks and accept the fact that I am, like everyone else, simply an ordinary human being. And that is just fine.
By nature I am a controlling person, so it has been very hard at times to accept that there are certain things that I cannot change. Every day of my life, I miss my husband, Michael, who died three years ago. Now, when I feel I am sinking into loneliness, I force myself to think of the extraordinary life he led, how content he was with his work, how much happiness his family afforded him, and how, without him, there would be no cherished daughter. Those thoughts enable me to overcome the loneliness. Each time I am able to get through it, I build confidence in myself for the next time. Practicing contentment helps build it as a muscle.
There is of course an element of luck in life that comes with making me content. I was born white, into a middle class family, and given a superb education. When I was young, I worried about money because my father went bankrupt a couple of times and later on, Michael and I never earned much. Today, with saving, frugal living, and fortuitous events, I feel I shall have enough for old age and that is all I want: enough. It is only very recently that I have come to appreciate what I have to an extent I never did before and for that, I am grateful. As I see daily the sadness, misery, sickness and poverty of so much of the world, I have come to feel that being less than content with my life would be the height of arrogance.
Life is full of unanswered questions, and is a long process of understanding yourself and others. This is part of its joy and – for a perfectionist like me – the anxiety of the unknown. While there were many times in my earlier life when I was happy, I was rarely content. As a 68 year old, I have largely made the important decisions in my life and no longer worry about what is coming next. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove about who I am or what I am capable of, and because of that I feel more able to enjoy myself than I ever have before. I see now that time has been an essential element of building my ability to be satisfied. It is only with age that I have come to deeply accept myself and others.
Michele is retired and lives in New York. She used to be a professional chef.
Image: painting by Chuck Close