Contentment Over Comparison: How Leaning into Gratitude Has Improved My Life

Man standing on the edge of a cliff at sunset looking over a city.
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.

There’s a line from “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath” that, since reading it years ago, has carved its way into my long-term memory: “God, how I ricochet between certainties and doubts.” 

While I do my share of vacillating between surety and skepticism, I find myself thinking of this quote just as often during other experiences of ricochet: between excitement over snowy days and utter loathing of the sub-freezing temperatures; between eagerness to make new friends and a desire to never talk to someone unfamiliar again; between ambitions to wake up with the sun and an impulse to stay in bed with a pillow over my face until my alarm forces me to reckon with the day.

Recently, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between experiencing utter contentment with the life I’ve settled into in my young-ish adulthood, and feeling, frankly, somewhat unsatisfied with my current circumstances.

As someone who wants to live a life marked by gratitude and contentment, the feelings of dissatisfaction are unsettling, and so I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting lately about the primary restraining and driving forces to happiness in my present life. Considering what moves me in the direction of dissatisfaction, and then what turns me around towards contentment, helps me to figure out action steps I can take that support the latter and deter the former.

Understanding that comparison does nothing for my own contentment

You know that saying, often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt: “comparison is the thief of joy”? For me it’s true.

Here’s an example: I recently went back to school and made a career change, a decision with which I’m thrilled on a professional level, as I find my new work as a psychotherapist intellectually and emotionally stimulating. However, I was a bit dismayed to learn how dismal the pay is for such a role. In a nutshell: I’m a licensed social worker with two masters degrees, and on my full-time salary, my family is eligible for governmental benefits like the WIC program.

We are lucky to live in a rural area with a low cost of living, and thanks to a whole lot of privilege, we have minimal debt, so we can survive on the terrible pay, and indeed, enjoy carefully selected splurges like a family pool membership or going out for ice cream. We like our life!

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But when I start to compare my financial situation to that of relatives who work in medicine or business, I start to get cranky. Many of them don’t work any harder than I do, and their work isn’t intrinsically more valuable than mine (or than my husband’s unpaid labor as a stay-at-home parent); why should they make enough to take vacations, get takeout regularly, and save for their children’s education while my family is barely making ends meet?

There’s no way around it: Comparing my situation to that of peers puts me in a decidedly negative mental space.

Recognizing that gratitude fosters my contentment 

It’s cliche, but intentionally considering all for which I have to be grateful is a surefire way to maximize my contentment. I have found that the more specific I am with my gratitude, the more happy and settled I feel within my life. I’m grateful to have a front porch that faces a quiet street and contains the most comfortable porch swing known to humans. I’m grateful to have access to basically any book I want to read through my library system’s excellent electronic book catalog. I’m grateful for the big windows that allow natural light to fill our home. I’m grateful for a short, easy commute.

RELATED: 3 Ways to Remind Yourself of Daily Blessings

In other words, I’m deeply grateful for the “big” things in life — the health of my loved ones and myself, life-giving friendships, access to nutritious food — but it’s in noticing the specific things that make my “everydays” more pleasurable that lead to an ongoing sense of contentment.

If comparison steals joy, and gratitude cultivates it, then the path to contentment in a life that is overall marked by good fortune (again, I’m not reckoning with systemic oppression, a trauma history, or any number of other major life challenges) isn’t so hard to navigate. It involves noticing in an ongoing and unrelenting way all for which I have to be grateful, and placing those things at the center of my mind. In doing so, I leave little space for comparison and the dissatisfaction to which it leads.

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