Striving for constant contentment is like striving to eat only ice cream; both will leave you feeling miserable. I say this because most of us are striving to be contented. I said most of us because I sometimes wonder... Are the guys from ISIS actually striving for contentment? Yes even they, in their warped way, probably are. But here’s the thing, not one of us is truly contented, at least not for very long.
Neuroscience has shown that the mental default setting of human beings is one of fear and anxiety. We are constantly on the lookout for threats, constantly protecting ourselves from danger of all kinds, whether from a wooly mastodon, or a judgmental boss. And when we're striving for something so clearly unobtainable it seems probable that we will feel—in addition to discontentment—a bit of disappointment too. That’s a problem. It’s like adding insult to injury. But what if we did a little re-framing as to what our feelings of discontentment actually are. Those unpleasant feelings are actually compelling factors. They are mental energies that move us, and by dint of our efforts, the world at large, to a better place.
A sense of discontentment is the very thing that drives human initiative and innovation. It’s the thing that says, the world is imperfect and we must get up off our asses and do something about it. The restive feelings we have, the subtle sensations of unease, which we feel on a daily basis, are inherently good things. Time out: Notice I’m not talking about profound depression or anxiety. That’s something else altogether. Those are mental illnesses one needs to treat. I’m talking about an animating tension that fuels our imagination and pushes us towards finding our own creativity.
I live in Santa Monica and without disparaging my fair city; I will note that it probably has per capita, the largest density of yoga studios, meditation centers and mind/body awareness clinics of any city in the world. This is not a bad thing. Hell, I’ve been a practitioner of meditation for the past 30 years. It does, however, set up a dialectic whereby a perfectly calm state of mind becomes considered by many to be the "proper state of mind," and a less-than-calm state of mind the improper one. I’m proposing, at least since we all have it, a little forbearance towards discontentment. The unsettled mind is a crucible for new ideas. It is a powerful engine of imagination, revving up possibilities of change.
I am hereby giving us all a pass. I’m simply saying, don’t feel bad if you’re not riding through your life on a cloud of bliss. The fact is that no one is — not even your yoga teacher or your meditation instructor. Everyone is at least a little freaked out, and why shouldn’t we be? We are only consciousness, housed in delicate and fallible bodies, peering out from behind the eyes we had as young children. Just look at all the sh*t we have to deal with! And here, I’m thinking about our fellow bliss-seekers from ISIS again.
Perhaps if we could simply embrace our lack of contentment and not fall prey to actually becoming depressed about it we’d feel better overall. Perhaps if we could understand the benefits of discontentment we’d at least be a little grateful for the experience of it. It’s a simple as this; we human beings get discontented and then we make things to ease the pain.
So, next time you find yourself upset that you’re not achieving anything akin to Nirvana, realize two things:
1. Nobody actually achieves it. (Some say they do and for reasons of their own, expect us to believe it.)
2. All creativity is fueled by discomfort. Embrace it; love it even. And then, go have yourself a big honkin' bowl of ice cream.
This article originally appeared in Forbes and is brought to your by our friends at Big Muse.