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Finding Contentment

By Marty Nemko

I’ve been thinking about a characteristic that many of us, especially in the Bay Area, seem to lack. We are very good at complaining: about the traffic, the Bush administration, race problems, even the Chronicle. We’re not so good at gratitude.

As a career counselor, not surprisingly, I have many clients who complain about their jobs. For example, Mark is an insurance salesman. He hates having to make all those cold calls. Once he gets the prospect on the phone, he hates getting rejected. If he manages to get an appointment with a prospect, he hates having to pretend being interested in their endless stories about themselves. He hates that only one in three buys. Mark spends much of his time a frustrated, angry guy.

While insurance sales may not be the world’s best job, Mark has much to be grateful for: grateful that he gets the chance to hear people’s life stories, and in the comfort of a pleasant office or in their homes and, for doing that, earns $100,000 a year. Apart from career, he might well be grateful that he lives in one of the world’s great cities, and that he’s healthy.

I asked Mark, “Which do you think will bring you greater contentment: a new career or a new attitude?” Couched that starkly, he chose the attitude, hands down.

How about you? Might you become more content if you tried harder to look for things to be grateful for?

A San Francisco article on finding contentment could not be complete without the Bay Area’s unofficial motto, the Buddhist credo: be in the moment. Much unhappiness comes from looking backward or forward: That was terrible! I’m scared of what’s coming up! Living in the moment not only can dissipate unhappiness, it allows you to enjoy the main thing you can enjoy—what you are experiencing now. What are you experiencing now?

Another thing that has helped me to find greater contentment, ironically, is that I am a hypochondriac. I’m hypervigilant to every bodily sensation, and unless it’s clearly innocuous, I worry that it portends doom. My hypochondria’s one positive effect is that it provides perspective. In comparison with cancer, how important is it that I had a bad day at work? In comparison with a heart attack, how awful is it that I got a $100 parking ticket? (Which I did, by the way. How dare they charge that much! Oops, I was supposed to be content. Never mind.)

I’m certainly not suggesting that hypochondria offers a path toward contentment—hardly—but we might all do well to consider the larger scheme of things as we weigh the importance of what’s bugging us. As Richard Carlson’s book says, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…It’s All The Small Stuff.”

Of course, it’s not really all small stuff. If we think that, then our life loses much of its meaning. So, perhaps the best we can wish for is freedom of worry from the small stuff, so we can focus on what Freud advocated: good work, something to look forward to, and someone to love.

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