Finland has been rated the happiest country in the world for six years straight. And many other Northern European countries like Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Norway are also highly ranked. But the Finnish people wouldn’t necessarily claim they were happy; they would say they were content — more satisfied with their lot in life.
Contentment is less common in the U.S., where striving for the American dream makes us one of the most ambitious countries on Earth. So is all this striving impacting our happiness?
According to psychotherapist Niro Feliciano, author of This Book Won’t Make You Happy, our society isn’t set up for finding contentment, so it’s our responsibility to cultivate it in our own lives.
She says that contentment is more about wanting everything you already have rather than having everything you want. “It’s the ability to look at what is already enough in your life and derive pleasure from it,” she says.
Many Western countries, especially the U.S., tend to connect happiness with acquisition and accomplishment, and Nordic countries equate happiness with appreciation, says Feliciano. “It’s about finding contentment in the smaller things in life,” she says. The focus is also on connection.
Enjoyment and connection are also promoted as a culture. In countries like Finland, people are given more time to do things like rest, bike ride or spend time with family because their average workweek is shorter. While the workweek in Finland is 40 hours, the average American ends up working around seven hours above what’s considered full-time, for a total of 47 hours per week, according to Gallup.
Clinical psychologist Reid Daitzman says achieving continuous contentment in a Western capitalist society is hard, if not impossible. In some ways, being human is pitted directly against contentment because the trait is not rewarded by evolution.
In the U.S., in particular, we’re constantly looking at metrics that help us advance starting from a young age. Testing starts in kindergarten, and kids quickly learn that advancing is more important than learning. And we carry this attitude into adulthood.
“Everything high school students do is to check a box to get into a better college rather than for their happiness or personal growth,” says Feliciano.
Feliciano contends that when our plates are full, we have less mental bandwidth to engage in any sort of appreciation because we’re distracted with what we have to do next. We spend too much time in fight or flight mode with our sympathetic nervous system preparing for a threat. Striving causes the production of adrenaline, and while it can be exciting, it’s not good for your body.
People live longer when they do practices like self-compassion and gratitude because it pulls your nervous system back into parasympathetic activation — when your body begins to rest and restore. “This is when we have more cognitive clarity, motivation and our immune system begins to function optimally,” she says. Contentment comes from paying attention to what we have, and unless we slow down, we’re unable to notice the little things that matter.
Feliciano says that first, you have to decide what really matters in your life and what brings you joy. “It might sound morbid, but if you were on your deathbed, what would you look back and wish you had spent the most time doing,” she says. “Make more time for that.”
Clear your morning and start your day with some moments of gratitude in whatever form makes sense to you. Maybe it’s prayer, meditation, a mindful walk or a cup of coffee alone on the couch.
The good news, says Daitzman, is that, like a fine wine, finding states of happiness and contentment gets easier with age. “Older people are better at knowing what works and doesn’t work in their lives,” he says. When you’ve been succeeding and also suffering for longer, you know what to do and not to do to bring on a state of contentment. And it’s all about listening to those messages.