The art of con­tent­ment

Do you have the ‘grass is greener’ syn­drome? Here’s how to be grate­ful.

Friday - - Friday Contents -

The email pinged into Cara’s in­box just as she was dash­ing out of the of­fice for yet an­other gru­elling meet­ing. It was from an old friend she’d met up with at a school re­union the pre­vi­ous weekend. “We hadn’t seen each other for about 20 years, and we’d spent the whole evening catch­ing up,” she re­calls.

Now a suc­cess­ful fi­nan­cial an­a­lyst liv­ing on Dubai’s The Palm, Cara, 40, en­joys a life­style many would envy – not least, it seems, her old friend. “In her email, He­len said she’d spent the week com­par­ing the way our lives had evolved so dif­fer­ently,” Cara ex­plains. “She’d mar­ried her child­hood sweet­heart, went on to have three chil­dren, and still lives in the neigh­bour­hood where she grew up. She felt that, in com­par­i­son to me, her life was ter­ri­bly mun­dane, and she en­vied the ex­cit­ing ca­reer I have.”

Cara read­ily ad­mits that she has al­ways been am­bi­tious, and reaps the ben­e­fits of her suc­cess – but it has come at a price. “I work such long hours that I don’t re­ally have a so­cial life – let alone a love life – and at week­ends I’m usu­ally deal­ing with the over­spill from work… it’s some­times re­ally lonely,” she says. “The irony is that I’d spent the week re­ally en­vy­ing He­len’s un­com­pli­cated life – she’s sur­rounded by a lov­ing fam­ily, has a beau­ti­ful home, and is hap­pily mar­ried to a great guy.”

Most of us will ad­mit that at times we look at an­other per­son’s cir­cum­stances and be­lieve that in some way or an­other, they’ve got a bet­ter deal – whether it’s their life­style, pros­per­ity, ca­reer, or re­la­tion­ship.

There’s noth­ing new about this feel­ing, ei­ther. The Ro­man poet Ovid (43BC-AD17) wrote, “The har­vest is al­ways richer in an­other man’s field,” while an an­cient Ja­panese proverb lit­er­ally trans­lates as re­fer­ring to a be­lief that con­tent­ment would be achieved if only one’s cir­cum­stances were dif­fer­ent.

“Of course, there’s noth­ing in­trin­si­cally wrong with want­ing to as­pire to be more than we are – and be­ing in­flu­enced by oth­ers’ achieve­ments can be a ter­rific driv­ing force, pro­vided this is tem­pered with re­al­ity,” says Dr Tara Wyne, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist at The Light­House Ara­bia in Dubai.

“Such ex­am­ples should in­spire us to grow – but if it ends up be­ing no more than an ‘I got that, I did that’ list, sim­ply to em­u­late an­other’s life­style, it be­comes a hol­low ex­er­cise,” says Dr Wyne.

Chang­ing times

Un­doubt­edly, to­day’s suc­cess-driven so­ci­ety makes it harder to main­tain a sense of per­spec­tive. Just a few gen­er­a­tions ago, most people’s ex­pe­ri­ences and am­bi­tions didn’t stretch so far, mak­ing it eas­ier, per­haps, to ac­cept life’s perime­ters. Nowa­days, though, op­por­tu­ni­ties, along with choices, are vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed. “We’re told the world is our oys­ter, which, while ex­cit­ing, can also leave us rest­less and dis­sat­is­fied,” says Dr Wyne. “What­ever we achieve, we still won­der what else is out there, so we seek some­thing, pos­si­bly get it, but are then left want­ing the next thing. It’s a vi­cious cir­cle that leaves us vul­ner­a­ble and dis­sat­is­fied.”

UK-based psy­chol­o­gist Sue Firth agrees, but points out an­other im­por­tant fac­tor in the preva­lent ‘grass is al­ways greener’ syn­drome. “We’ve es­tab­lished a celebri­ty­ob­sessed cul­ture and con­stantly see people – of­ten with­out no­table talent – who have fast-tracked their way to fame and for­tune,” she says. “This has not only chal­lenged the ‘work hard if you want to suc­ceed’ ethic, but be­ing ex­posed to their seem­ingly per­fect life­styles and idyl­lic re­la­tion­ships

We seek some­thing, and per­haps get it, but then are left want­ing the next thing. It’s a vi­cious cir­cle

can leave us feel­ing as if our own are some­how lack­ing. It’s a com­pletely dis­torted view of re­al­ity.”

The root of all evil?

Not sur­pris­ingly, one of the most fun­da­men­tal ‘if only…’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tions to­day is about money. “There is an un­healthy ob­ses­sion with the ‘big­ger, bet­ter, wealth­ier’ ideals, but it’s clear that even the rich­est in so­ci­ety don’t nec­es­sar­ily en­joy what they have,” says Dr Wyne. “How many times do we read of seem­ingly suc­cess­ful people strug­gling in some way, or fall­ing from grace in a spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion?”

In­deed, stud­ies con­sis­tently show that hap­pi­ness lev­els do not con­tinue to rise with in­creased wealth.

“If you put yourself un­der pres­sure to make more and more money – con­vinced it will im­prove life sub­stan­tially – ev­ery­thing quickly loses bal­ance,” says Sue.

“For in­stance, work­ing all hours to be­come wealth­ier will have an im­pact on your most cher­ished re­la­tion­ships be­cause they will be ne­glected rather than en­riched. Of course, it’s im­por­tant to feel fi­nan­cially se­cure, but be­yond that hav­ing money isn’t go­ing to pro­vide all the an­swers.”

Be grate­ful

So how do we find con­tent­ment on our own side of the fence – or at least main­tain a sense of per­spec­tive? It’s ac­tu­ally a sim­ple mes­sage that spir­i­tual guides and psy­chol­o­gists alike agree on, namely, the only way for­ward is to look at the life you have and deal with what’s there. Bud­dhism, for in­stance, teaches that the se­cret to hap­pi­ness is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don’t. Renowned psy­cho­an­a­lyst Me­lanie Klein (18821960) called this the ‘ac­cep­tance of re­al­ity’ and saw it as the touch­stone for peace of mind, con­tent­ment and in­ner se­cu­rity.

The premise holds true to­day – psy­chol­o­gists read­ily agree much of their work in­volves help­ing pa­tients to read­just their thoughts to the life they have – rather than want­ing an­other one com­pletely. “Ask yourself if you’re re­ally mind­ful of what you al­ready have in your own life, and con­nect with what is im­por­tant within it. Once you can do that, you will stop feel­ing de­tached and start to ap­pre­ci­ate its value, rather than al­ways want­ing some­thing more,” urges Dr Wyne.

Per­haps, too, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing the wise words of au­thor Robert Ful­ghum who stated un­equiv­o­cally that the grass is not al­ways greener: “Fences have noth­ing to do with it. The grass is green­est where it is wa­tered. When cross­ing over fences, carry wa­ter with you and tend the grass wher­ever you may be.”

Ask yourself if you’re re­ally mind­ful of what you have, and con­nect with what’s im­por­tant


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