A Guide on How to Become Perfectly Happy!
Man is always searching for that which promises happiness, but rarely finds it because he looks to the world for “things” to make him happy. So where can true happiness be found? Maybe this quote by Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen can help us to understand. “Your unhappiness is not due to your want of a fortune or high position or fame or sufficient vitamins. It is due not to a want of something outside of you, but to a want of something inside you. You were made for perfect happiness. No wonder everything short of God disappoints you.”
What all Men and Women Truly Desire is Contentment
All people have a desire to be perfectly happy, and when we say happy we truly mean content. Contentment with what is — in our lives — provides a strong foundation for real joy, not to be confused with emotional happiness. We often feel that contentment is an involuntary experience that comes when we have everything we want. This is a false misconception for two reasons. One is that, in fact, we will never have “everything we want” in our earthly life. Desires multiply themselves without end if we let them. The other reason is that contentment is, in its beginnings, a voluntary state of mind prompted by God’s grace. At its most profound, contentment is a high spiritual state, a gift of God to our spirit. It is the deepest space of heart. We can receive it only once we come to a place of humility for the initial grace to be open to change. It’s at this point that God is able to penetrate our hearts when we have practiced it long enough to make an interior place for it. This occurs when we come to God regularly in prayer and scripture.
Contentment is never just a matter of a full stomach or a soft bed or any external circumstance. Contentment comes from within. Contentment is a fundamental satisfaction with our lives as they are, a quiet, steady acceptance even in the midst of constant changes. This sense of “okay-ness” about life gives us relief from striving toward the future or pushing toward new circumstances. If we are contented, we can freely relax, smile and appreciate our lives.
Contentment is even more; it is the capacity to welcome whatever God allows to come into your life. It is as if we are enabled to say a warm “hello” to each person, each situation, or each event that comes into our lives.
In everyone’s lives all things come to us and all things leave us. It is the nature of life on earth. We often are more ready to covet things and try to hold on to them than we are to give thanks to God and appreciate them as gifts. Gifts that come and go. This is why scripture teaches us to practice a life of detachment from this world. People, things, emotions will never bring us contentment in and of themselves. If we are contented, we welcome each circumstance as it comes, not only those we happen to find pleasing.
This Does Not Mean Resignation or Complacency
Contentment is not the same as resignation, at least not as we usually understand resignation. The resigned person feels, “Well, these are the circumstances and I can’t do much about them, so I’ll resign myself to them and go on.” This is a more fatalistic approach, and it’s not enough. In contrast, the contented person says, “Wow! I certainly didn’t expect this, but let me see what delight God is trying to show me in it.” Contentment takes delight in life as it actually is.
Contentment is also not complacency, with oneself or one’s life or of the world. True contentment sees life as such a positive experience that one is already different from the discontented. It creates a climate where change, when needed or when it comes of itself, is welcomed. It allows one to move toward growth peaceably and without force. Since contentment neither grasps at situations nor demands particular results, it frees God to act in a person’s life without hindrance. For our will to be in union with His.
Contentment is essentially, then, a quiet, open stance in the heart and mind, a delight in what is, and a willingness to be led by God’s circumstances.
This is how my patron, Saint Augustine describes in his writing “Of the Morals of the Catholic Church” of how one is to obtain perfect happiness (aka. contentment).
It is laid down at the outset that the customs of the holy life of the Church should be referred to the chief good of man, that is, God. We must seek after God with supreme affection; and this doctrine is supported in the Catholic Church by the authority of both Testaments. The four virtues get their names from different forms of this love. Then follow the duties of love to our neighbor. In the Catholic Church we find examples of continence and of true Christian conduct. (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, Introduction [A.D. 388])
To be in love with God, to open our hearts to all that he has provided us for our good is how we grow in being content. Why? Because the desire for perfect happiness, for contentment was placed in our hearts at the moment of our conception. We all have that desire to draw us to Him for every need we have. Saint Augustine goes on to explain how man is to live in order to be happy.
How then, according to reason, ought man to live? We all certainly desire to live contented and happily; and there is no human being but assents to this statement almost before it is made. But the title happy cannot, in my opinion, belong either to him who has not what he loves, whatever it may be, or to him who has what he loves if it is hurtful or to him who does not love what he has, although it is good in perfection. For one who seeks what he cannot obtain suffers torture, and one who has got what is not desirable is cheated, and one who does not seek for what is worth seeking for is diseased. Now in all these cases the mind cannot but be unhappy and discontent, and happiness (contentment) and unhappiness (discontentment) cannot reside at the same time in one man; so in none of these cases can the man be happily content. I find, then, a fourth case, where the happy life exists,— when that which is man’s chief good is both loved and possessed. For what do we call enjoyment but having at hand the objects of love? And no one can be happy who does not enjoy what is man’s chief good, nor is there anyone who enjoys this who is not happily content. We must then have at hand our chief good, if we think of living a happily content life. (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, 4 [A.D. 388])
So truly, we are called to seek out that which is the supreme good, or chief good for ourselves. We spend so much energy on trying to find that “good” in things, when in reality, it can only be found in Jesus Christ. Augustine goes on to say:
We must now inquire what is man’s chief good, which of course cannot be anything inferior to man himself. For whoever follows after what is inferior to himself, becomes himself inferior. But every man is bound to follow what is best. Wherefore man’s chief good is not inferior to man. Is it then something similar to man himself? It must be so, if there is nothing above man which he is capable of enjoying. But if we find something which is both superior to man, and can be possessed by the man who loves it, who can doubt that in seeking for happiness man should endeavor to reach that which is more excellent than the being who makes the endeavor. For if happiness and contentment consists in the enjoyment of a good than which there is nothing better, which we call the chief good, how can a man be properly called happy who has not yet attained to his chief good? Or how can that be the chief good beyond which something better remains for us to arrive at? Such, then, being the chief good, it must be something which cannot be lost against the will. For no one can feel confident regarding a good which he knows can be taken from him, although he wishes to keep and cherish it. But if a man feels no confidence regarding the good which he enjoys, how can he be happy while in such fear of losing it? (Of the Morals of the Catholic Church, 5 [A.D. 388])
How Can We Be Content in a World Full of Sorrow, Pain and Daily Frustrations?
How about being content in a world that seems to have so much wrong with it? Can a contented person change the world? The answer is yes, and more powerfully than a discontented one. First, a contented person spreads peace to everyone he comes in contact with, while a striving, uneasy person fills the atmosphere with negativity. The very existence of a contented person means that a corner of the world is a more peaceful place.
Moreover, each person is called by God to some service to the world. If each us were to respond to this call from God, no matter how small or large it may seem, God will do in the world what he wants done through us. Again, contentment serves this possibility because it frees us from all our “what-about-me?” worries. We are then more able to follow our God-given calling.
We may never change the world in big ways. Even so, our responsibility is to serve as He calls us, with contentment in our heart. The joy in this approach to life is astounding! Service to all kinds of joy-giving, but the service of the contented heart and mind opens to the river of joy that is God’s grace. There are many saints that give us a good example of the good that come from a life lived in this way. St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus de Liguori and St. John Bosco are among my favorites.
Habits that Erode Contentment
There are a number of human flaws that erode the possibility of contentment. Their opposites are tools for the practice of being content. As I go through these, I am reminded that I and my family struggle with all these to one degree or another. As most of us do.
- An unwillingness to accept disappointment. This is often heard as “If only…” If only I hadn’t done that, if only my parents…, if only the Church…, if only my neighbors would… then I would be content. “If only” betrays a discontented heart. In a person possessing this attitude, contentment simply has no room in the heart.
This is a big one that we struggle with in my home and we are striving to overcome this. REMEDY: The opposite of “if only” is a simple and humble acceptance and acknowledgement of the facts as they are.
- Another bad habit is comparison of ourselves (life, circumstances, etc.) with those of another. “I wish I were like that!” “Why don’t I have that thing (quality, event, object) in my life?” And worst of all, “I want what you have.” That is envy. There is a reason for it to be forbidden by one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17). Envy destroys one’s own peace; it makes contentment impossible. It leads to self-pity, which is the total opposite of contentment and perhaps the worst thing we can do to ourselves. Further, envy destroys human relationships. How can I be a friend if I want what you have?
REMEDY: The antidote for envious comparison is twofold: stop comparing is likely the best method. If you find yourself doing so, choose to rejoice that the thing (quality, position, etc.) you envy is doing its good work in the world. Be glad of its existence.
- Complaining is another habit that is a symptom of discontentment. From the 1300’s, Augustinian mystic, Walter Hilton in his writing the “Ladder of Perfection” says “The more you grumble…the less is the image of Jesus Christ reformed in you.”
REMEDY: The best way out of this is to replace it with giving thanks. Instead of complaining, give thanks. Look for the good in the current discomfort, problem or what have you. At the very least, just don’t do it. Don’t do it mentally or vocally. Give your mind something else to do every time you begin to complain. Distract your attention to a better use of your mind. Prayer would be a good thing to do. Pray for the problem, issue, person causing you grief, etc.
- Unbridled, uncontrolled ambition destroys contentment too. A whole book could be written on the effects of inappropriate ambition. Like any unwelcome desire, it can take over one’s entire life. The wrong kind of ambition is often totally selfish.
REMEDY: The antidote for ambition is finding the blessing in each moment as it comes along. The selfish desire to be more, bigger, better, needs to be given to God for purification. Then each moment becomes a gift to be enjoyed. The result will be a content heart.
- Restlessness and boredom are also enemies of contentment. These are epidemic habits in our society because our lives are so filled with business and excitement. TV, internet, etc. We are constantly in danger of a state of overstimulation. There is always sound; at every hour of the night, cities roar. There are always lights; places to go and things to do, and it’s just growing. If we come upon moments without stimulation, we simply do not know what to do with ourselves, so we fret restlessly. We feel bored until we can go at it again. This can leads to all kinds of problems that destroy contentment. Pornography, constantly surfing the web, constant need for TV, entertainment, etc.
REMEDY: A solution is purposefully practicing a daily time of complete wakeful relaxation and prayer without any stimulations.
The Key to Contentment
With all these familiar flaws that we all contend with to one degree or another, how can we be contented?
Saint Paul gives us the key. In his Letter to the Philippians, he says he is content is all circumstances because “…I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient” (Philippians 4:11). The circumstances of his life, you will remember, were often extreme and required great strength and perseverance. For the strength he needed, for his contentment, he turned to Christ.
We need to turn to God and cooperate with His desire that we be filled with contentment. One method to be used is to seek in all situations the gift God has placed there for us. If we are practicing so as to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, then the Spirit provides for us many circumstances through which we can receive what we need in every situation. We need to remember that nothing comes to us which doesn’t hold some gift for us. We can practice being willing to look deeply enough to find it.
Once we realize this, every new circumstance is a like a surprise package. We can trust in the loving hand of God who gives it to us. God gives at every moment what is best for us, for our growth in Christ and our own healing. If we ignore or resist what he gives, in whatever wrapping He gives it, we end up throwing away the thing we desire most, which is a close relationship with God. As my patron saint, Augustine said “you have made us for yourselves, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.” We will never reach true contentment until we find it in Christ.
If we take delight in each event as it comes, seeking there what God has to show us, then his presence becomes the wellspring of Joy. We become more and more open. Joy will bubble up within us.
The very truth that we all forget, is that the Lord is always present at every moment in every situation. We do not pay attention to our hearts where He is always present, so we think He is absent. In the end we can be contented only insofar as we are centered on God and know His presence in all things. Too often we only recognize Him in our need or when things are going good, but to truly grow in contentment, we must see Him in all things at all times. Then permanent contentment will arise in us as a gift.
When we practice contentment, we become more aware of the Lord’s presence. When we are aware of the Lord’s presence, contentment becomes our joy.
Some questions to ponder:
- Do I actually believe circumstances or people must change in order for me to “feel” contented?
- Do I like a peaceful, contented attitude, or do I actually prefer being “stirred up”? …be honest. 🙂
- In what ways each day can I look for delight in things as they are?
Some ways to practice contentment
- Become quiet and relaxed. Recall a time when you involuntarily felt completely contented, when everything was okay and even better than okay. Recall the feelings you had then. Let that feeling come to you now. Let it expand and fill your whole awareness. Revel in the beauty of that contented feeling.
Now staying in touch with that feeling, become aware of the present moment and all it contains. Let your feeling of contentment flow from your heart into all aspects of this moment: yourself, your surroundings, your family, work, friends, etc. Be utterly contented in your heart. Give thanks to God for this moment of contentment, for this true gift. Ask him to increase it in your heart. Make this a weekly habit.
- Practice gratitude. Give thanks for everything, no matter how small or how difficult. Say with each new event “Thank you, God, for giving me this moment’s gift.” Look for the many opportunities each day to practice this. Notice how with each time it becomes easier and easier to do so.
“In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18
“giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.” – Ephesians 5:20
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28
- Stop what you are doing. Say to yourself, “I have everything I need. God generously supplies all my needs.” Repeat this over and over for several minutes. Notice how you feel, what happens inside. You can turn this into a prayer. You could even pray Psalm 23, which is a prayer of gratitude and thankfulness.
As a practice, this may feel strange at first, especially if you are usually not very contented. Be persistent. Try to remember that contentment is an attitude, not an external fact. We use this true statement to correct an attitude. So even if it feels foreign to you, make an attempt to practice it.
- Review the Habits that Erode Contentment. Choose the one that you struggle with the most and begin to practice the opposite remedy that is provided.
Here are some Scripture references to reflect upon as well.
- Psalm 8
- Psalm 40:9
- Psalm 92:2-5
- Sirach 29:23; 30:15-16
- 2 Corinthians 12:10
- Hebrews 13:5
- 1 Timothy 6:6-11
Also, here is a list of books that have been very helpful to me.
- Imitation of Christ – Thomas a Kempis
- Uniformity with God’s Will – St. Alphonsus de Liguori
- The Way of Salvation and Perfection – St. Alphonsus de Liguori
- The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ – St. Alphonsus de Liguori
- Calamities, Chastisement and the Love of God – St. Alphonsus de Liguori
- The Great Means of Obtaining Salvation and All the Graces Which We Desire of God – St. Alphonsus de Liguori
- Abandonment to Divine Providence – Jean-Pierre de Caussade
- Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence – St. Claude de la Colombiere
- Introduction to the Devout Life – St. Francis de Sales
- The Treatise of the Love of God – St. Francis de Sales
- The Practice of the Presence of God – Brother Lawrence
- On Loving God – St. Bernard of Clairvaux
- The Spiritual Exercises – St. Ignatius of Loyola
- The Three Ages of the Interior Life – Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange
- The Ladder of Perfection – Walter Hilton
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just some of the books that I have read and found helpful. The treasury of the Church has many, many more books that are just as helpful as these. However, the overall message of all these books, in accordance of scripture by which they all take their origins, is that we are always to rely on the Grace of God in our lives, to surrender our lives to Him. In all we think, say and do. To grow in virtue and holiness, not by our own means but by God’s moving our hearts and our openness and cooperation with Him. This is how one truly obtains contentment in life and preparation for the glory and perfection that God has prepared for us forever with Him in heaven.
“What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, what the mind of man cannot visualise; all that God has prepared for those who love him; to us, though, God has given revelation through the Spirit, for the Spirit explores the depths of everything, even the depths of God.” ~ 1 Corinthians 2:9-10
Additional books and resources are found here:
A Prayer for Contentment by Saint Augustine
“Almighty God, who knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: set free your servants from all anxious thoughts for the morrow. Give us contentment with your good gifts. Confirm our faith that, according as we seek your kingdom, you will not suffer us to lack any good thing. Provide, therefore, whatever you see to be necessary for our health and salvation. Of your fatherly love and compassion, give us whatever else would truly bless us. All our desire is known, O Lord, to you. Therefore perfect in us what your Spirit has awakened us to ask in prayer.” ~ Saint Augustine
May we strive for the perfection and union with God that He desires for all of us!