The Art of Contentment

Whenever happiness is defined, it usually includes the feeling of being contented. A discontented person is not happy about his lot. Thus a secret of happiness is to learn how to have contentment in life.

But does it mean that, in order to be happy, we should no longer have any ambition, any goals, or any desire for improvement since we are already contented? Doesn’t contentment lead to stagnation?

This point is usually where people misunderstand the meaning of contentment.

Truly contented persons are not those who are no longer seeking improvement. They do. But they calmly accept the circumstances of the present moment because it is the reality of the present moment. The complaint or dissatisfaction that one should have a car now when one cannot afford it yet is not only unrealistic but also foolish. It is to demand for something which is not possible at this moment. If I do this all the time, I will never be a happy person ever, no matter how rich I become or how high a position I attain.

Let’s take another circumstance. Suppose I have no fingers on my right hand since birth. I see that everyone I know has fingers. I am dissatisfied with my situation, even though I know that I can never have fingers in my life. This discontentment is pointless, and only contributes to unhappiness. The moment I can accept my situation then the discontentment ceases. It will no longer be a cause of unhappiness.

Contentment therefore is being able to accept calmly or cheerfully whatever circumstances we find ourselves in at any moment. My hands get dirtied now, then all right, they are dirty. I will wash it off within ten minutes. But while it is dirty, I can accept and live with it. I get sick and am bedridden for two weeks. All right, I am bedridden for two weeks. I accept it and make use of the recuperation time to read books or do something I like. If there is pain, then I accept the pain as it is. After two weeks I go back to work. I am queueing up in a long line and it will take one hour before it comes to my turn. All right, I have to stand and line up for the next one hour. I will be calm and cheerful for the next one hour. My legs are tired; all right, I accept that my legs are tired. What I am queueing up for is worth the temporary tiredness.

Discontentment is non-acceptance of the reality of the present moment. It is to want that this moment should be other than what it is.

Discontentment is also caused by comparison with other people. My neighbor has a car, I should also have a car. This reflects reliance on external social factors for our happiness. Perhaps I really don’t need a car, but I feel inferior if my neighbor has a car and I don’t. It is a reflection of our low self-esteem. The significance of our life is being measured by comparison or competition with others, which is a sure-fire formula for unhappiness. There will always be people who are better situated than us, as there will always be people who are less fortunate than us.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow described self-actualized people, or individuals who are nearer the apex of human maturity, as those whose feeling of self-worth are not dependent on culture or the environment. They are autonomous and depend for their growth on their inner potentials rather than the expectations of other people or society.

This is the reason why children should not be brought up in an atmosphere of competition or ranking or even comparison. Encouraging contests or comparison at home or in schools unconsciously creates a frame of mind that the worth of a person depends upon how one compares with others. It creates insecurity as well as discontentment. Happiness becomes elusive.

Six Ingredients of a Happier Life

Happiness is what all people yearn for. Yet why is it that it seems very elusive? If it is so important, why is it not being taught in schools? We spend twelve or more years learning mathematics, why not a single semester on how to become a happier person? Are there time-tested ingredients that will make our lives happier?

Fortunately, there are guidelines which have been known since time immemorial by wise sages. In addition, modern psychology has found out a number of ingredients that accompany a happy life.

First, what is happiness?

It is not pleasure or excitement, for these are fleeting things that are due to a surge of sensory stimulation.

It is not also being wealthy, because rich people have committed suicide. One German industrialist, one of the richest persons in the world, committed suicide due to losses from some unwise investments but which still left him with about US$10 billion in assets. A 70-year study of Americans has shown that with the soaring of financial income of Americans, the level of happiness has not increased.

Neither is it fame. Marilyn Monroe killed herself at the height of her fame. She was just 36 years old. Other famous people who ended their lives are Robin Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun, and Vincent Van Gogh.

One of the insights of modern psychology is that happiness is not an event or episode. It is state of well-being that lingers in spite of the ups and downs of life. In other words, a person continues to feel good about life, that is, generally happy,  even when there are adversities that happen. If we look at the people around us, and reflect on our own lives and experiences, this is our common understanding of happiness. No person is free from adversities, setbacks, accidents, illness or losses. And yet some people are able to maintain a positive, optimistic and cheerful attitude, while others are grouchy and dissatisfied much of the time even when things seem to be going well.

Thus, we can define happiness in this way: “It is a sustained state of well-being, contentment and meaningfulness, accompanied by positive feelings.”

With the above introduction, let us look into six important ingredients in making our lives a happier one. All of them are within our control.

1. Remove Causes of Unhappiness. There are psychological factors that make a person almost incapable of long-term happiness. These are fear (including worry and anxiety), depressiveness, resentment, anger, guilt, hurt and even aversion.

A person with fear, for example, can hardly be happy. The state of fear is one of constriction and defensiveness that is definitely unpleasant, whereas happiness is one of naturalness, spontaneity, expansiveness and positiveness. Its roots are the thousand and one unpleasant and fearful experiences since childhood that have not been resolved and released. They impinge upon the present moment in a semi-conscious way that prevents us from being our natural self and being cheerful. These unresolved unpleasant experiences become subconscious “push buttons” that are easily triggered by memory or association. Roger may have suffered from the cruelty and bullying on his parents, and today he has fear of authority that affects his mood while at work or in social situations.

So long as these push buttons are lodged in the subconscious, it is very difficult for a person to become happy, natural, spontaneous or expansive. It is like a constant inner dark cloud that prevents the mind and feelings to be cheerful and sunny.

These push buttons can be removed through what is called self-awareness processing and which allows the bottled-up energy to be safely released permanently.

2. Develop Habits of Positiveness.  Positiveness refers to psychological states such as cheerfulness, enthusiasm, optimism, appreciation or gratitude.

Positiveness is a habit. Some people are genetically endowed with such a predisposition, others are not. For those who are not, they can develop positive habits and overcome one’s innate moroseness.

When a person consciously tries to be positive, something changes in the way one looks at life and the world. The world has not changed, but one’s state of happiness has. Try regularly expressing appreciation towards other people, feeling grateful for what we have and for what others have given us, smiling frequently, being optimistic about almost anything — then the habit of positiveness sets in. And life changes.

3. Nurture Positive Relationships. To most people, the greatest source of unhappiness is people. Jean Paul Sartre wrote: “I know what hell is. Hell is other people.”

The good news is that people are also the sources of their greatest happiness: friendship, a loving marital relationship, children, a happy work environment, and helping other people.

Positive relationship is something that is built, nurtured and watered on a regular basis through kindness, cheerfulness, humor and helpfulness. Other people may be nasty, critical, pessimistic or aloof. But that really is their problem, not ours. We can still feel friendly and positive towards them.

4. Help Others Selflessly. This is an inestimable ingredient of happiness — helping others without thinking of anything in return. It need not be in terms of money but anything that uplifts other people and make them feel happier.

Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

Dr. Martin Seligman once gave two weekend assignments to his psychology students. First is to engage in something that they think they will enjoy — watching a movie, hanging out with friends, going to the beach, etc. The second is to do something to help someone — even complete strangers. The following week, the students were asked which of the two activities gave them greater happiness. The students were unanimous: helping others gave a greater feeling of happiness.

5. Be Ethical. When we deliberately harm others — cheating, hurting, or depriving them of something — there are two consequences. Internally, we don’t feel good. We know that we have done something wrong, and we cannot have true inward peace and happiness. Externally, we have just set up a chain of karma that will return to us in a painful way — bringing more unhappiness. It can be immediate — like being punched back; or it may take years before we receive what we deserve, such as negative public opinion or going to jail; or it may come in another lifetime — being born to cruel parents or being born with severe disabilities.

6. Have a Wholesome Philosophy of Life. This covers insights that one learns from experience or from wiser people. Below are examples:

•   Do not compare yourself with others, but attain excellence by doing your best. Comparison is a major source of dissatisfaction and unhappiness — trying to keep up with our neighbors or colleagues. There will always be people whose life situations are better or worse than us. Neither be discontented nor proud in connection with what other people have or don’t have. We set our own inner benchmarks and pursue what is meaningful to us, not what is meaningful to other people.

•   Do not double your loss. Suppose I lost a leg due to an accident. I may feel bitter and constantly blame people or circumstances for the tragedy, resulting in long term unhappiness. What I don’t realize is that I have just doubled my loss — I have lost a leg, and I have lost my happiness. Why don’t I just stop at one loss, and retain my capacity for being cheerful and happy?

•   See the larger picture of life. Life is not just about jobs or income or social status. It is about growth of the soul towards perfection from life to life. This is a basic insight that has been known in the spiritual traditions of both east and west, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic (Sufi) and other mystical movements. The psychologist Abraham Maslow describes such a growth direction as self-actualization and self-transcendence.

•   We create our destiny. Many people are passive victims of circumstances. Wiser people are aware that it is within our power to (a) change our attitudes towards our circumstances, and (b) we can alter our future circumstances by sowing the right seeds of karma at every moment.

Competence: A Crucial Quality of a Young Adult



People get stressed when they are faced with a problem that is quite beyond their competency to solve, but which they are expected to solve. They know that they have to solve it, but they are unsure on how to go about it. As unsolved problems mount, the greater is the stress and unhappiness of the person.

Stress levels rise proportionately to the magnitude of the gap between expected competence and actual competence. A graduate of a good university is expected to perform well in a job that they applied for, while an employee who did not even finish college will not be expected to meet such standards. Farmers can live a happy life even if they did not go to school. No one expects them to know more than farming. But if even in farming, they don’t seem to do the job well, then they will feel the pressure of their wives and the criticism of their neighbors. Stress and distress begin.

There are two kinds of competency: technical competency and personal competency. It is the second one that is more important.

Technical competency means that an electrical engineer knows the job of an electrical engineer and possesses the requisite knowledge of the profession. An accountant knows how to complete financial statements and do all the ledgers, accrual basis, bank reconciliation and other things an accountant should know. When one is an accountant and has inadequate knowledge and skills about accounting, the person will feel stressed because he or she knows that the expectation is valid, but he or she is unable to deliver that which he implicitly promised to deliver.

Young people therefore must realize at a young age what it means to be professionally competent and to have the initiative to attain this regardless of the educational standard of the school they find themselves in. With Youtube, Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and a host of free resources in the internet, anyone can learn practically anything on a sufficiently high level.

But it is the second competency that is truly important — personal competency. This covers a host of qualities that are truly valuable in a person: self-confidence, self-esteem, initiative, curiosity, willingness to learn, stick-to-it-iveness, resourcefulness, perseverance, result-orientedness, emotional intelligence, leadership, unselfishness, trustworthiness, volunteerism and similar qualities. If it is overlaid with cheerfulness, optimism, and compassion, then you have someone who is destined for success in any field that they get into. A person who has these qualities can learn almost any skill or technical competency.

Personal competency is a quality that is nurtured from early childhood. When children are not put down (“idiot,” “dumb,” “useless”), frequently criticized or humiliated, then they do not develop low self-esteem, a factor that drags personal competency down to a very low level even if they are actually intelligent. On the other hand, when they feel accepted as they are, receive sincere praises when deserving, and feel that they are loved, then they are developing a personality foundation that will be solid and stable, and which can sustain them even during times of trial, adversity and setback. They will grow up not fearing failure or making mistakes. They are willing to take measured risks. They are ready to apologize when it is due. The world to them will not be a hellish or oppressive place, and life will be a positive adventure and a happy experience.

It is unfortunate that many schools do not teach this second kind of competency as systematically as they teach mathematics and grammar. Unfortunate too is the fact that many parents are the primary demolisher of such personal competency.

These then are what parents and schools should look at: the development of technical competency and personal competency, and to remember that the second one is more important than the first.

One World Government


After the end of World War II, Albert Einstein said: “In my opinion the only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government, with security of nations founded upon law. As long as sovereign states continue to have separate armaments and armament secrets, new world wars will be inevitable.”

This idea of one world government is not a new one. It has been espoused by many thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, H. G. Wells, etc. It is the solution to wars. The world will be governed by basic international laws, but nations do not give up their autonomy. The basic idea is that there will only be one global police force or army under the world government. There will perhaps be a global currency. Nations can continue to function as autonomous states; they can impose their own taxes, set their own internal laws such as on divorce, immigration laws, education, etc., so long as these do not contravene international laws. It is similar to the government of the United States, where the states are free to exercise their own legislative and executive powers as well as have their own judiciary system, but at the same time there are federal legislative bodies, executive officers and the Supreme Court that deal with federal matters.

The United Nations is an early experiment towards a global rule of law. It has its inevitable imperfections because the powers who formed the backbone of the UN were not willing to make the UN a democratic institution. They retained their veto power in the Security Council. It will take generations, or perhaps centuries, before the next step towards a world government will be taken. It took a world war before the UN became a reality. We hope that it will not require another global war before a world government is formed.

US President Harry Truman said: “We must make the United Nations continue to work, and to be a going concern, to see that difficulties between nations may be settled just as we settle difficulties between States here in the United States. When Kansas and Colorado fall out over the waters in the Arkansas River, they don’t go to war over it; they go to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the matter is settled in a just and honorable way. There is not a difficulty in the whole world that cannot be settled in exactly the same way in a world court.”

Some people may think that the idea of a world government is too idealistic but not very practical. But it looks too idealistic for those who desire military control over their subjects, or are insecure with their neighbors. The truth is that this idealistic view is actually the most practical measure to ensure world peace in the long run. There will be no more wars because no nation is allowed to maintain armed forces except for the police. Poverty and hunger can be wiped out by rechanneling the funds formerly used to sustain millions of soldiers doing almost nothing or spent in the development and maintenance of huge stockpile of weaponry from guns to warships to nuclear bombs.

Education must bring about the acceleration of the popularization of this idea of a world brotherhood and sisterhood, one world government, and the widespread recognition of a single human family. When this idea has taken in the psyche of young future leaders, then perhaps we don’t have to wait for a thousand years to achieve lasting peace.

An Honesty Store


An Honesty Shop. Would you believe that it exists? A store with no store keeper, where you just pay in a box for whatever you buy?

There is one in Batanes, the northernmost province in the Philippines. Prior to my trip to Batanes, I had heard about it, but I thought that the store was just a marketing gimmick for tourism. When I visited it, then I realized that it was a real business venture. It was started in 1995 by Elena Castano-Gabilo, a retired teacher. This year, 2017, twenty two years later, it is still existing. She opened the store to serve the needs of fishermen who would normally leave very early in the morning before dawn. And since she could not wake up that early, she simply depended on the honesty of those who buy food and drink. And it worked. Today, the store earns enough to sustain herself and her husband’s needs now that they are retired and elderly.

One wonders why it only exists in Batanes Island. Why can’t we have it in Manila, in Cebu, in Davao?

I guess the non-competitive culture and atmosphere in Batanes make the Honesty shop possible. Batanes has a small population — just about 17,000 in the three inhabited islands. There are no beggars. Neither are there super-rich people so far as I know. People live simple lives despite the exposure to television and internet culture. There is no rat race. There seems very little motive for greed and acquisitiveness. The crime rate is very, very low. This is I believe due to the cultural traditions of the Ivatans, the indigenous people of Batanes. I hope that tourism doesn’t spoil the culture of the Ivatans, which I think is in many ways superior to our regular society, especially our urban population. This makes the Honesty Shop doable.

I have travelled to almost all the provinces of the Philippines. It is only in Batanes where people on the road looked at me, sometimes with a shy but kind smile, and nodded their heads, and greeted me. Not just one person but many of them. It is as if it was a neighborhood, not a town or a city. My thoughts went to the towns or cities or countries that are wracked with violence, crime, corruption, competition, stress, insecurity, hatred and unhappiness. The complex commercial and technological world is trying to achieve a state of simplicity, peacefulness and harmony but is not getting anywhere near it. The 20th century was the most advanced but the most bloody and murderous century in history. And there in Batanes, we have the simple comforts of modernity — television, cellphone, computers, internet, and yet without the insecurity, crime, violence and unhappiness of the most of the rest of the world.

Looking at our own urban life, what can we do such that our societies can continue to advance in technology, convenience and comfort, but without the accompanying insecurities, violence and stress?

Society is a but a mirror of individuals taken collectively. Individuals are also molded by society. It’s a circular process that perpetuates itself. Thus the culture and individuals carry forward for generations and centuries what are wholesome and unwholesome in society. How do we interrupt the perpetuation of the unwholesome values and practices? How can we break the pattern of toxic customs and values?

There is practically only one way to do so: through education.

Adults have immense difficulties in changing their habits, values, attitudes and even their belief systems that have been embedded in them for twenty or fifty years. They may agree with new values but may find themselves unable to change.

Young people, on the other hand, are malleable. Their habits are still soft and pliable. With the right influence and information through a well-planned and well-carried out educational system, they can individually and collectively change and break pernicious habits of the past. This I believe is what Singapore did that enabled them to transform their society from a backward nation to a prosperous, safe and self-disciplined nation.

The Benefits of Meditation


Many large companies today in the United States, Japan and other countries, are encouraging their employees to learn meditation or mindfulness. One example is Google. Why? Because they found that their employees become more productive, focused and less stressed. According to the website SOS, “a 1993 study conducted in four companies in the United States and Japan showed that regular practice of meditation among employees resulted in significant improvements in job satisfaction, efficiency and productivity, as well as in work and personal relationships. Who can argue with a technique that offers such excellent benefits to both the individual and the corporation?” Steve Jobs of Apple had been practicing meditation for many years and had influenced many other CEOs among US corporations. An article in the Harvard Business Review states that “research has shown that meditation can decrease anxiety, which allows practitioners to be more resilient and handle stress better.”

More than being productive in work, meditation has important effects in one’s life. It makes us aware of our true life directions and we notice thoughts, reactions and behaviors that are not aligned to such basic directions. We do not get carried away by the patterns of our past habits and the pressure of our environment. We thus are able to live a more meaningful life. The deeper purpose of meditation is to be able to attain the highest potentials of our growth. It is what is called self-actualization or self-transcendence by the psychologist Abraham Maslow. It enables a person to enter into the mystical stages of human growth to our highest level of maturity.

How do we practice meditation? There are a number of well-known classic meditational approaches. Their  basic principles are essentially similar. Below is one standard method:

1. Start with twenty minutes of self-awareness each day, preferably in the morning upon waking up. Sit cross-legged on your bed or sit on a chair at a location of your choice where you will not be disturbed by people coming and going.

2. Keep your spine straight; breathing normal; with eyes closed or half-open.

3. Be aware of your body and check whether there is any discomfort or tension. If there is, then feel it and allow it to relax when you breathe out. When the body gets relaxed, you will notice that your emotions also calm down naturally.

4. Then be aware of your breathing. As you breathe in, mentally count “one.” When you breathe out, mentally count “two.” Breathe in, count “three,” breathe out, count “four.” Continue counting up to “ten,” after which start again from “one.”

5. When your mind gets distracted by other thoughts, just return to the counting. If the mind goes away a hundred times, then be aware of it and just gently return to the counting a hundred times. Later you will notice that it will get less and less distracted. While you are meditating you will notice that there is an inner space in our consciousness that has no boundary. This space is awareness itself, something that we usually don’t notice.

6. When you end the meditation session, try to sustain this inward awareness for a minute or so while you are back to normal activity.

After you have practiced meditation for a week or two, you will notice a difference in the way that you interact with the world and with people. You are no longer as reactive to things as before, and you will tend to respond in a more calm and balanced way. You will be less prone to anger and less impatient. You will be more capable of spontaneous joy.

How to Handle Worry

Worry is something so common that we assume that it is a natural part of our lives. This is because human life is always faced with circumstances that can cause anxiety in most people. But the problem is that worry causes tension, restlessness, sleeplessness and unhappiness. It has the element of fear in it, and the fear in worry is the one that causes unhappiness. When there is no fear, then it is a concern, not a worry.

There are people who have very heavy responsibilities on their shoulders and yet they may be quite relaxed in life while solving problems that come along the way. On the other hand, there are people who easily get upset and bothered by small things, or get worried about things that they could do nothing about.

How can we minimize worry while being effective in one’s work or duties?

Through the centuries, many wise men have found effective approaches to dealing with problems without being burdened by the feeling of worry. Below is a suggested approach:

1. Be clear about what you are worried about. Sometimes people have unclear anxieties which they avoid thinking about because of the unpleasantness that arise from the thought. What is it that really bothers you? Is it because you fear you will not pass an exam? Or will lose a sale? Or that someone is sick and may die?

2. Once you are clear about what you are worried about, devote a certain period of time, like one hour, to consider the options you have in facing the problem. You may consult other people about it and ask for their opinions. Then list down the different specific options that can help solve the problem. Do you need to talk to a certain person? Do you need to write a letter? Or travel to a place? Or pay a certain amount? Or have a medical checkup?

3. When you have drawn up the possible options (even far fetched options), then identify which options are the best ones. If you have one or two options that look to be the best, then list down the things that you should do to pursue that option, and it is very important to set a timetable on when you will do those things. Such a timetable is essential, because a plan without a timetable is not a plan, but just a wish.

4. Be aware of your own inner fears and hesitations in carrying out your top options. When you are sure that they are the best options, then carry them out despite your fears and hesitations.

5. Do your best in carrying out your options. Make sure that you are really doing your best and not just justifying your inaction.

6. After you have done your best, and still fail, then accept the consequences. Annie Besant, the famous theosophist, once wrote that “What is beyond my best is no longer my duty.” This is a truth. Even if the world is going to be annihilated and you cannot do anything about it, then simply accept it. But note that you should not give up easily. Persevere if the goal is important.

There is another habit that you can adopt in order to remove daily worries in your mind: it is to write down a daily list of things-to-do.

Everyday, write down the things that you need to do the next day, whether they are big things or small things. Use a notebook or your smart phone to list them. Then on the next day, check your list first thing in the morning and do the tasks one by one until they are completed. If for some reason something in your list could not be done (such as not being able to meet a person) then reschedule it to another day.

You will notice that once you have finished doing your things-to-do list, your mind becomes free from worry on that day and you can do a lot of other new and creative things.