Lighten Up: The Philosophies of Contentment

Rocks: assholes of the desert

It’s difficult to be content these days. With information at our fingertips and shops and services catering to every possible whim, we’re used to getting just about whatever we want when we want it. This of course has the downside of making the slightest delay or inaccessibility instantly frustrating, and more and more we get irritated and angry with the slightest obstacle.

Of course, we didn’t invent frustration with mundane things. Back in the days when committing your life to philosophy was considered a noble and respected life rather than a one-way ticket to working at Starbucks, a few people recognized that life shouldn’t be about what it isn’t, but rather what it is.

About seven years ago, I was given two books by two different people; one was The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, and the other was Enchiridion by Epictetus. These are not heavy reading by any means, but they both provide a basic introduction to two philosophies that struck a major chord for me. The concepts they lay out are not groundbreaking, and can even seem simplistic and perhaps redundant, however as similar as these two were in principal, they provided two distinct approaches to, in essence, being content. Their significance lay in what made them different.


I’ve been familiar with the basic precepts of Taoism for some time through bits and pieces, but never read much on it to any depth. The core of the philosophy is extremely old as philosophies go; the Tao Te Ching, considered the greatest foundational text of Taoism, dates back to around the 4th century BC. The fundamental concept of Taoism focuses on the natural order of things, and our co-existence with it rather than fighting to alter it. It considers our most natural state to be one passive to the nature of things around us.

Higher good is like water:
the good in water benefits all,
and does so without contention.
It rests where people dislike to be,
so it is close to the Way.
Where it dwells becomes good ground;
profound is the good in its heart,
benevolent the good it bestows.

– Tao Te Ching


As a concept, Stoicism, for which Enchiridion is considered one of the consummate representative texts, was a fairly new one to me. Founded around the 3rd century BC in Greece, Stoicism was focused more directly on on the potentially destructive nature of emotion rather than a greater worldview. While it still considered the world to have a natural order that dictated life, it was less concerned with the nature of that order than how to align yourself with it.

Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things that happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.
– Epictetus, Enchiridion


In simple comparison, these two have the same basic message: life is not to be forced. Regardless of time or effort, some things simply will not be, and you’ll only make yourself unhappy ignoring the fact. If you find you don’t have everything you want in life, you can save yourself a lot of grief by owning up to the simple truth that you never actually will, simply because you will always find something to want.

Where they deviate is in how you receive the things that are not what you wanted, or as you wanted them. Stoicism approaches the unfavorable like a wall; if you are indifferent to it and accept it as it is, it will not bother you. However on that same vein, Stoicism is generally against being overly happy too, insisting on living at a calm medium. The idea here is of course that if you’re not too happy, it won’t be quite so hard when things go bad. Taoism on the other hand focuses on finding happiness in all things; finding harmony with everything rather than simply weathering what it throws at you.

What they can mean to you

Greater and deeper interpretations have been made of these philosophies for hundreds of years, but on a basic level, two important main points can be taken from each:

  1. A sense of perspective is always important. Stoicism likes to point out that for every success we celebrate, every loss we mourn, we are not defined by these moments. In the same vein, we are not defined by the things we have, and the loss of them doesn’t mean we lose ourselves. When you miss your flight or have to stay at work late every night for a week, remember: that is just a moment, and all things considered, it’s really not a terrible one. Similarly, a sudden windfall is great, but don’t lose your head over it. It can just as swiftly be taken away.
  2. Striving is not the same thing as forcing. The general order of the world is referred to in Taoism as simply, “the Way.” When you follow the Way, things work as they are supposed to, and you will find the greatest contentment, even if the path and result are not what you intended. When we try to achieve something, we can pay attention to the things that influence our actions and outcome and accept that they are a part it. Or, we can reject everything else and risk failing completely because for that moment we considered our actions the only ones of meaning.

When the world has the Way,
running horses are retired to till the fields.
When the world lacks the Way,
war-horses are bred in the countryside.
No crime is greater than approving of greed;
no calamity is greater than discontent,
no fault is greater than possessiveness.
So the satisfaction of contentment is always enough.

– Tao Te Ching

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