An important part of achieving success is drive. We are always striving for change and improvement. We want to get that next promotion, to reach that next level. This is generally good of course; a hunger for more is the fuel of many achievements, as it can be the element that pushes people into great accomplishments. But that striving cannot happen in a vacuum. It might be accompanied by an attitude of gratitude and that’s why, as we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to spend a few minutes to talk about cultivating gratitude and contentment.
Gratitude is an intentional discipline and an affirmation of goodness. Practicing gratitude is a reliable means to increase happiness. It leads to forgiveness and paying it forward. Gratitude has also been shown to improve relationships, as well as overall physical and psychological health.
Gratitude leads to contentment, which is being satisfied with what you have and who you are in the present moment. In the Western world, most of us have been taught to believe that contentment is linked to our accomplishments or constantly getting more. Our basic value is that “more is better,” and we place a variety of personal qualifications on our contentment. We think we’ll be happy when we get married or when we nab that promotion or when we get that luxury car.
I used to find myself always wanting more and I was admittedly jealous of the successes of others. Following my medical residency and fellowship, I started my formal career in academic medicine, working as a faculty member at a major university. About five years into this position, I knew that I wanted global reach in medicine and to develop entrepreneurial skills (marketing, management, finance, and negotiation) much more than I had initially realized. I decided to transition to an industry career and was hired relatively quickly into a pharmacovigilance (drug safety) position at a large pharmaceutical company. I had everything I wanted in my career at that point, right? No, not in my mind.
I was frustrated because I essentially had to start over. I was at a low rank (or at least a rank that was lower than I wanted and thought I deserved) and could not happily internalize such an assignment. At the time, I felt that I had somehow been demoted, but it was my own doing! Slowly but surely, I worked my way up by confidently meeting my goals and deliverables and by taking the initiative to do more than required. I shifted my focus from drug safety to research and development, learned all aspects of bringing a new product to market, and began to excel at translating science from bench to product to customer. When I allowed myself the opportunity to grow more organically rather than pushing toward that next higher-ranking position, my organizational aptitude, skills, and positioning improved.
Through my corporate experiences and yoga practice, I have internalized that the happiness gained through success or materialism is only temporary. I realize that, though I may look at someone and think they have everything, the reality of their life may be very different than it appears. Contentment is a deep-seated sense of accepting — and fully experiencing — where you are at any given moment. Too often, we get so busy that we don’t even notice where we are, and, when we finally come up for air, we focus on where we were or where we want to be. But before we can be content with where we are, we must first be aware of where we are. The yogic premise is that what exists in the present moment is enough. Contentment is also about being happy with who you are. Many people who have reached a certain level of success don’t find contentment. Why? They are always driven to want more and are unhappy with themselves. I did not find contentment by having a “successful” career; I found it by trusting myself and letting go of my tendency to compare myself to others or to ideals I could never achieve.
Patanjali’s eight-limb path of yoga offers guidelines for a meaningful and purposeful life. The second limb contains five internal practices of Niyama (observance). The niyamas are individual practices that describe how we should act toward ourselves and encourage us to live and work better by applying a little discipline to areas we may not always pay much attention to.
The second niyama is santosha, which means to be content — to just be. It’s important to be clear on this: contentment does not preclude ambition. It does not mean that you will not want more. Contentment is gratitude, appreciation, and acceptance for the way things are now. We feel like we can never be content until we attain that next level — we are always striving for change, improvement, or the next promotion, but the truth is that we can create it now.
Take a moment and look around you. Describe your space without making any judgments. Instead of saying the room is cheerful or dreary (words of judgment), simply observe the texture of the carpet or floor, the color of the room, and the positioning of your furniture. Perhaps the walls are beige, the desk is facing the window, the fabric on your chair is slightly worn, or there is a photo of someone you love next to your computer. By noticing without judging, we allow ourselves to be aware of the present moment. Contentment comes when we are most aware of the present moment, and through the power of contentment, happiness becomes a more viable choice.
On Thanksgiving Day, if only for a few moments, commit to practicing santosha and expressing gratitude. Try to focus on all that you have, rather than what you don’t have or what you think you deserve. Voice your gratitude to the people who mean the most to you. Your efforts may have enormous benefit not only for them, but for you.