“Content is a word unknown to life; it is also a word unknown to man.” – John Fowles
So much of our lives we are told the secret to happiness lies in our ability to be content with what we have. A noble sentiment far easier to accept if we were not simultaneously encouraged to aim for something better than what we currently have. Complete contradictions of one another these competing philosophies are driven into our heads from the moment we are born. On one hand there will always be something beyond our reach so accepting one’s place in the world seems like the route to take. However, the desire to achieve more has driven some of the greatest innovations in history. Considering both ideas can be seen as logical options, what then is the true secret to happiness and success?
Acceptance of our circumstances seems to be the nobler of the two. So much pain and sadness can come from the constant need to have something better. Corruption, greed, theft: all of these arise from a desire to have something we do not possess. Not to mention the perils that come with thinking the grass is always greener on the other side. Taken to the extreme this can lead to a never-ending quest for satisfaction that will most likely leave one miserable and completely discontent. Take Anakin Skywalker for example, his inability to accept his fate lead to the downfall of a Republic and the near eradication of the Jedi. The Rise of the Empire aside, completely disregarding the pursuit of something greater is not without its downsides.
As potentially perilous as the notion of more equals happier can be, its not without merit. As mentioned earlier, without a thirst for improvement, some of the worlds’ greatest accomplishments might never have occurred. Had the United States and the former Soviet Union not desired something more its unlikely we would have put a man in outer space much less the moon. Had great civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. not desired something better than life had given them, we might never have seen an African-American elected to the Presidency of the United States. Had George Lucas settled for the technology of his day, we may never have gotten the adventures of a young boy from Tattoine that has become one of the most influential movie franchises of all time. While some may choose to disagree with that last point, the simple fact remains, refusing to be content with the current state of things has lead to some of the greatest moments in our collective history.
What then must we do? Should we continue to walk the line between wanting it all and being content with nothing? Should we completely forsake the pursuit of something greater, in order to appreciate our current state? Or should we abandon our long term peace of mind in order to drive us and our motivations consistently upward? All great questions, with no clear answers.
Despite the ambiguity of it all it is important we find a balance between the two. We must not obsess with the things and opportunities we do not have. Inversely, allowing ourselves to simply fall into a simple complacency that prevents us from rising to life’s many challenges is not acceptable either. It is only in this paradox and all of its complexity one might find true happiness. Eleanor Roosevelt perhaps said it best, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”