A Basic Formula for Contentedness

A friend and I were discussing food. I told him that I didn’t care about food, and he laughed and said that I cared more about food than anyone he knew. I am so obsessed with ingredients and quality and wouldn’t eat at a lot of restaurants.

I thought about it and realized that he was right. I do really care a lot about food. I try to learn about what goes into it and how it’s made and I have very strong opinions on both of those things for a wide set of foods. I probably wouldn’t voluntarily eat 95% of the items outside of the meat and produce aisles of the grocery store.

And yet… I still feel like someone who doesn’t care about food. When I’m by myself in the US (and even most of the time when I’m not) I eat the same exact thing every day. A small bowl of nuts at 4pm, Chipotle at 6pm. I love those foods, but if they went away I’d just substitute them with something else and carry on. In my mind, someone who really cared about food wouldn’t do that.

A month or two after I began quarantining for Coronavirus, someone commented that the virus must have really impacted me. No, I said, it didn’t have any big effect on me. Then I thought about it more and realized that it destroyed my main business, my wife’s career, and my entire lifestyle of traveling all the time.

There’s a pattern here, and I think in that pattern is a formula for general contentedness.

I think a lot about appreciation. We all have a mix of things in our lives, some great and some not so great. Even if you don’t think you have anything great in your life, you could add things like being alive and having access to clean water to your list of great things. If you do not fully and proactively appreciate these great things, then you are leaving something on the table.

What’s the point of seeking out and acquiring great things in your life if you won’t fully appreciate them? If you appreciate everything at just 80%, you will gain far more joy and contentedness by learning to appreciate what you already have than you will by seeking out new things.

The inverse is also true, which is to say that the more you let bad things bother you, the more they are taking away from your joy and contentedness.

I think that most of us have enough good things in our lives to be at 100% content all the time. Think about your family, your friends, the incredible gift of life, the unlimited knowledge at your fingertips, nature, your health, and the power to create. Then you can add in any material possessions or unique talents or advantages you have. Even a modest subset of those things should be enough to be 100% content.

You, of course, have to count negatives against these things as well. If you’re hanging on the edge of a volcano and about to fall into the lava, you could reasonably be rather uncontent. For most problems, though, we have a great ability to mitigate them or even turn them into positives.

When I say I don’t care about food, that’s really shorthand for “not having fancy meals won’t decrease my contentedness in any way”. When I said that coronavirus didn’t really have an impact me, I really felt that way because it didn’t change how happy I was with my life or my daily routine.

The formula, then, is this: appreciate everything, need nothing.

This, by the way, is also how you balance ambition with happiness. Try to achieve and get everything you can out of life, but be grateful and content with what you have now. If some of what you have now goes away, try to get it and more back, but also be happy with your new normal.


Photo is Noah Kagan scuba diving with me at Lake Mead. It was both of our first times scuba diving there and was really interesting

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