And my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19) For we brought nothing into the world, and neither can we carry anything out of it. (1 Timothy 6:7)
The movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, reminds us to ’never give up’. Since its release over a decade ago, it is among the movies that sticks in many people’s minds, including mine. It is indeed inspirational with a single message: no matter what, keep pushing, better life lies ahead. This movie dramatises the true story of Chris Gardener (played by Will Smith) in his extraordinary journey from homelessness to success as a stockbroker, all the while supporting his young son as a single father. The movie has a very simple message: ‘Never give up’. Being evicted from their home and facing financial difficulties, the father-son duo faced numerous struggles every day. Yet, the small bits of happiness they find, despite all adversities, provides a heart-warming plot for this film. In one scene Will Smith tells the son, ‘Don’t ever let somebody tell you… You can’t do something. Not even me. All right?… You got a dream… You got to protect it. People who can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you, you can’t do it. If you want something, go get it. Period’. With all odds against the duo, they did survive and achieved their goal.
In real life, Chris Gardener initially started his company with $10,000 and is now CEO and founder of multimillion-dollar holdings with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. He is a motivational speaker, philanthropist and humanitarian. He has helped fund a $50 million project in San Francisco that creates low-income housing and opportunities for employment in the area of the city where he was once homeless.
A more critical question is, do all pursuits in life have a happy ending?
Things are not always the way they seem.
Public perception maintains that doctors are successful, intelligent, wealthy, and immune from the problems of the masses. Are they? Doctors have among the highest reported suicide rates, more than double the general population according to some surveys. High doctor suicide rates have been reported as early as 1858. Yet 162 years later, the root causes of these suicides remain unaddressed. Physician suicide is a global public health crisis. More than one million Americans lose their doctors each year to suicide, just in the United States.
In an Medscape article entitled ‘Why “Happy” Doctors Die by Suicide’, the authors argue that doctors choose suicide to end their pain, not because they want to die. Authors insist that ignoring doctor suicides leads to more doctor suicides. Another study finds that most physician suicides are multifactorial, involving a cascade of events that unfold months to years before. We will not explore the causes or intervention in this article. However, we are looking at one component of what might give some light to the cause. We are looking at contentment or job satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and how to prevent it from being the cause of suicide in the medical profession.
What is Contentment?
Wikipedia defines contentment as ‘an emotional state of satisfaction that can be seen as a mental state, maybe drawn from being at ease in one’s situation, body and mind’. In other words, contentment means to live the satisfied life. That is, satisfied with who you are, what you have, what you do, and with your relationships. This may mean that one has accepted one’s situation and is therefore happy or has reached a form of ‘happiness’.
How can we feel content in a restless world? For this blog, we will use ‘happiness’ and ‘contentment’ interchangeably. Literature seems generally to agree that contentment is a state ideally reached through being happy with what a person has, as opposed to achieving one’s larger ambitions.
Contentment and its pursuit have been central throughout human history. Philosophers, psychologists, even religious scholars across diverse cultures and times have all wrestled in addressing this topic. Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou in the 3rd century wrote: ‘A gentleman who profoundly penetrates all things and is in harmony with their transformations will be contented with whatever time may bring. He follows the course of nature in whatever situation he may be.’
In Siddharta’s words, ‘Health is the most precious gain and contentment the greatest wealth’. John Stuart Mill states, ‘I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them’.
Hebrews 13:5 says, keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’.
What are some of the myths about happiness?
Someone may argue, what about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Well, there may be several elements of achievement that may induce in someone in a state of personal contentment: a strong family unit, a strong local community, and satisfaction of life’s basic needs. One may think that the more needs in Maslow’s hierarchy are achieved, the more easily one might achieve contentment. Is this true?
It is not true to think that everyone has a fixed set point for happiness. Once that target is achieved, I will be happy. If one sets a target of one million dollars in their bank account, once reached one needs more, and more…where does it stop?
The marketing and advertising industry know human nature all too well. It aims its television commercials, radio ads, jingles, web sites, store fronts, signs, etc., at all the things we don’t have implying that if we did have those things we would attain contentment.
Nobel Peace Prize winner and statesman, Nelson Mandela, once said, ‘I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb’. There is no lasting happiness nor instant happiness in life. Socrates states, ‘He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have’.
It is also not true that money can buy happiness. Robert Skidelsky answering the question how much is enough in Money and the Good Life states: ‘Experience has taught us that material wants know no natural bounds, that they will expand without end unless we consciously restrain them. Capitalism rests precisely on this endless expansion of wants. That is why, for all its success, it remains so unloved. It has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough.’
During the doctors strikes for better wages in South Africa, I was part of the negotiation representing the junior doctors in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Province. I asked my mentor, Prof Sam Fehrsen, ‘How much do you think is enough?’ He gave me brief answer with a smile, ‘Just a little bit more’. I have realised that the happiness formula even as a scientific equation does not exist.
What is the fuel of discontentment?
Modern culture feeds on the comparison frenzy. America’s social experiment group has a ‘Contentment Scorecard’ that they give to a group of people to score their life’s achievements. The card has things like: Education, own a house in suburb, work satisfaction, marriage, children, children’s education, travels. People score themselves good and satisfied with the progress in their life’s achievements. Most people are happy with their life’s achievements until they see their neighbour’s scorecard. If the neighbour scores better/higher than you, dissatisfaction begins.
Fyodor Dostoevsky in his book, Crime and Punishment says: ‘I used to analyse myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts “to be like the rest” and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again, in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.’
How then should one improve if contentment is the name of the game?
Contentment is not being blind to the fact that things could be better, only the recognition that those changes would not make you ultimately more content.
What about a driven individual who wants to work hard, succeed, do better in his or her occupation, is he a discontented person or unpleasing to the Lord? Not necessarily. God has put in our hearts the desire to succeed. The issue is whether you would be content if you didn’t get the promotion, or have the money, or send the kids to the best university.
In Ephesians 2:10, the Bible says, ‘We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do works which God prepared in advance for us to do. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord (1 Corinthians 12:5-6). Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms (1Peter 4:10-11).
The writer of Hebrews compares the Christian walk to a race (Hebrews 12:1). This is not a sprint but a marathon that is set for us. To paraphrase, the race is not against anyone else but for each of us as an individual. It is unique and personal. No need to compete with others, they have their own race. Each day we are required to better ourselves. This can be achieved by focusing on the One who called us. He is the author and finisher of our faith. Each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them (1 Corinthians 7:17).
In every profession that we have been called for, do the best as though you are working for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Remember, you can do all things through him (Christ) who strengthens you (Philippians 4:13).
This is to show that ultimately our gifts, talents, professions belong to God and should be exercised to bring glory to him. Seeking perfection is essential if we are to give a report back to the master. Expecting from him, ‘well done good and faithful servant’ (Matthew 25:23). Therefore, we are not in competition with colleagues, but working harder to better ourselves to bring glory to our Lord.
What does the Bible say about contentment?
And my God shall supply all your ‘NEEDS’ according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19). Notice that the verse above speaks on needs not ‘wants’.
God is not only the eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent Creator, but he is also my Shepherd. God, who eternally loves and cares for me – The LORD – is my shepherd; I shall not want (Psalms 23:1). He will provide enough for me to never be in want. Therefore, I choose to be content!
‘But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.’ (1 Timothy 6:6-12)
Contentment’s best friends are Gratitude, Joy, and Peace
What have we learned then?
We have learned that contentment needs to be learned (Philippians 4:12), ‘I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need’. The word for ‘learned the secret’ is one Greek word muéō (μυέω), meaning a revealed secret or mystery. The Apostle Paul knew that contentment goes against our human nature. Therefore, the need to learn. Just as a college degree takes time, patience, and hard work, getting a degree in contentment requires similar diligence.
Many of us are trying to fill a void of some kind in our lives, and unfortunately, we try to fill that void with things that can’t satisfy. We look to fill the void with possessions or money, but we only end up wanting more. We try to fill it with relationships or sex, but we end up feeling even more empty and depressed than when we started. All of these things we try to fill our lives with aren’t necessarily bad things, but when they become the end goals, and the reason for our being, we end up being discontent because those things were never meant to fulfil us.
As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says, ‘Wealth is like seawater: the more you drink, the thirstier you become’. Think of all the times you really wanted something, got it, and discontentment reared its ugly head again. As you grow closer to the Lord, you notice that you really don’t need all those things to make you content. All you need is God. When you actually gave sacrificially, this should have produced less contentment but it actually increased your contentment and joy.
Wealth is an attitude of gratitude with which we remind ourselves every day to count our blessings. Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes from Underground states, ‘Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness’. ‘For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?’ (Mark 8:36). Contentment implies that life is greater than its wealth or riches.
The Bible calls us to allow our convictions, not our circumstances, to govern our sense of contentment. True biblical contentment is a conviction that Christ’s power, purpose and provision is sufficient for every circumstance (2 Corinthians 9:12). We are to learn how to walk through all kinds of adversity, believing in and experiencing Christ’s sufficiency. We have to choose to rest on God’s good promises despite what may be going on in our lives.
You can find contentment only in Christ, and in striving to serve him. Contentment can’t be found in God’s creation or in things like people, possessions, or money. In fact, those things may hinder your pursuit for true happiness and contentment. What really matters – family and friends (relationships) or serving God and others; developing your full potential (growth) or fulfilling your calling (unique calling); Pursuing meaning and virtue. Our fulfilment lies in giving ourselves to others. After all, we all are interconnected as we are being reminded by COVID pandemic. Let’s strive to make this world a better place for all. As Paul TP Wong put it: ‘Life is a journey, not a destination. A worthy life is a journey of adventure, discovery and service to others.’ Benjamin Franklin states: ‘Contentment makes a poor man rich; discontentment makes a rich man poor.’
You will find contentment only by pursuing your personal calling from God for your life. This is a personal journey, unique to you and only yours to pursue.
May God help us to find him in our pursuit of life! And be who he intended us to be.
Augustin Lutakwa is ICMDA Associate Executive Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa