Is there a tension between improvement and contentment?

Leo Babauta of zen habits writes:

“For the last eight years, I’ve had an internal struggle: between wanting to improve myself, and wanting to be content. To be honest, I haven’t completely figured out how to resolve that struggle. But I’m working on it.”

This is something I’ve been struggling with lately, too. I’m a big fan of self-improvement: I’m constantly trying to develop better habits, to learn new things, to be a better person. I like to set myself ambitious goals, to have something high to aim for. And I genuinely think these things give me an important sense of satisfaction and fulfilment with my life. 

There does seem to be real tension, though, between wanting to improve things and being happy with things as they are. 

The downside of heavily focusing on improvement is that you’re always thinking about how you could be better, which inevitably brings with it some discontentment with how you are right now. Similarly with setting ambitious goals: if you’re always focused on achieving something in the future, there’s a risk that every day simply becomes a means to that future end, that you’re never really satisfied. Go too far in the other direction, and you’re so contented with everything as it is that you have no desire to improve anything. 

I don’t think the tension is necessarily irresolvable. I think (I hope?) that it’s possible to be highly driven to improve without also feeling dissatisfied with things as they are. I think it’s possible to be contented while also having goals and wanting to improve. At the very least, I think there may be a sweet spot, where you’re mostly content in the ways that are important, yet still driven to improve in certain healthy ways. I don't think I've quite found this sweet spot yet, but here are some thoughts on what I've found useful.

What exactly is ‘contentment’?

It might be useful to start by clarifying what we mean by “contentment” or “being happy with things as they are.” We could reasonably imagine defining contentment as something like “being satisfied with things as they are such that you have no desire to change them”, in which case the inconsistency is there by definition. If this is what contentment is, then I think I’m happy to bite the bullet and just say I don’t want it.

But I think when I think of the kind of contentment that I want, I’m thinking of something slightly different. Contentment doesn’t mean I have no desire for things to improve, but that I don’t feel like I need things to improve. There’s a big difference between a mindset of “once I make all these improvements, then I’ll be happy”, and one of “I’m happy with my life right now, and I’d be happy if nothing changed - but maybe I could make some improvements that would make my life even better.” In the latter case, it seems like you can at least have some kind of contentment while still wanting to improve.

Why do you want to improve?

One thing I’ve found helpful in resolving some of the tension is to be very careful about the kinds of goals I aim to achieve, the kinds of improvements I focus on. Improvement for improvement’s sake seems more likely to lead to dissatisfaction than really carefully thought-through improvement aimed at some valuable goal.

A big part of the problem with being driven to improve is that we often naturally focus on things that are ultimately outside of our control: losing weight, winning a Nobel Prize, being popular and well-liked. Striving for things you can’t control is clearly a recipe for dissatisfaction. Instead, I try to focus on and reward myself for more internal goals: being more self-aware, being kinder towards myself and more empathetic of others, doing things that I find uncomfortable or aversive but know are valuable. I try to judge myself by my own standards, not by how other people are responding to me (which isn’t to say I always manage this, but I try!). 

Though this technically means I’m still not totally content with how things are, this kind of ‘discontentment’ feels very different from the discontentment that arises from, say, wishing I had the body of an underwear model. I think this partly arises from the fact that I’m much more aware of why I want to improve in this way, and my reasons align a lot more with my fundamental goals. I want to be better at dealing with negative emotions because I think it will result in fewer negative emotions on a day-to-day basis, which is something that seems very fundamentally valuable to me. Whereas when I think about why I want to have a flatter stomach, my motivations feel much less pure: I want to look good, which stems from caring what other people think about me, which is really only a means to an end.

The broader point here is that it’s important to ask yourself why you want to improve. Leo Babauta says that his drive to improve was rooted in dissatisfaction with himself as he was, leading to this struggle between improvement and contentment. But I don’t think dissatisfaction need be the only motivation for improving: you might want to improve yourself because it helps you to achieve something you value, something that goes beyond your own satisfaction with yourself as a person. A really nice example of this is wanting to improve yourself so that you can contribute to making the world as a better place. Wanting to be a better scientist so that you can contribute more to finding cures to diseases seems quite compatible with being completely content with who you are as a person. What’s driving the desire for improvement is external to you, not about how you perceive yourself as a person.

It’s also possible that the reason you want to improve is that you believe doing so will make you happier and more contented. This could seem almost paradoxical: being discontented with the fact you’re not content doesn’t sound very productive. But if you get contentment and happiness from the process of improving, from learning - rather than simply aiming at some end goal, some perfect image - it might be less problematic. In a sense, I think it’s the fact that I’m constantly improving that makes me feel most content with myself and my life right now. I know I’m not perfect, but that’s ok, because I’m willing and able to improve in the ways I believe are most important. 

Separating the present and the future

It can also be useful to distinguish between wanting things to be different right now - and wanting things to be different in the future. In the former case, I’m dissatisfied, and I feel a sense of struggle - I have no power to change the present moment. I’m at a party, for example, stuck in a slow and dull conversation, wishing I could be part of the animated-looking discussion on the other side of the room. 

But I can be happy with how things are right now and still want the future to be different. I might decide to make the most of the conversation I’m in, and try to steer it somewhere more interesting, while also thinking about what steps I can take to fill my social life with fun, interesting interactions in future. The future is going to be different no matter what I do - even if I make no effort to shape my life or behaviour, it’s going to be shaped by factors outside of my control. So I might as well make a conscious effort to shape my life and myself in ways that I think will be most valuable.

Like Leo, I haven’t completely figured out how to resolve this tension between improvement and contentment - but I’m also working on it. And maybe one of the most important way in which I can improve is in learning how to resolve this struggle, and in learning to get less caught up in the pursuit of improvement where it’s not important.