A Practical Guide To Maintaining Contentment
Imagine a temple. You’re sitting in the middle. It’s cool and calm. A heavy white stone roof is above your head. Supporting that roof are a number of pillars.
This is contentment, this is calm, this is a feeling of wellbeing.
To build your temple you need a bare minimum of two pillars — to hold the roof up and ensure you don’t get crushed. Pillar 1 is food and water. Pillar 2 is getting enough sleep. The roof itself is shelter.
Each pillar must be maintained. Imagine that time is passing rapidly and the pillars are eroding slowly in front of your eyes. You have a team of workmen who can be sent to rebuild each pillar. Generally, they can only work on one pillar at a time.
Working on a pillar means improving that aspect of your life. That could be getting eight hours of sleep and fixing your circadian rhythms. It could be getting more vitamins and minerals.
You should strive for a safer ‘three pillars’ so that your roof stays up even if one pillar collapses. Pillar 3 is usually company: a friend, family member or partner.
Ideally though, in a genuinely fulfilled life, you’ll have seven or eight pillars. Company can consist of a few pillars. Family life, friendship groups and romantic partners can all form their own pillar. So can hobbies. So can exercise. So can relaxing. So can helping strangers. A major pillar will likely be your career ambitions and/or schooling.
Once you’re sitting in a seven pillared temple you’re in a pretty strong position. You can spend your days gently tending to each pillar. Perhaps you care about some pillars more than others, refining them, while others are more functional. But it’s extremely important to put a bit of time into all your pillars — and never get into a situation where if one of your pillars collapsed, your temple roof would instantly fall in (because none of the other pillars have been getting attention).
If your relationship falls apart, or you lose your job, you will see a major pillar collapse. But the great thing about having six others in place is that you can continue to let them hold up your roof. You can then quietly set about rebuilding the fallen pillar.
Behind this theory is the idea that unhappiness, anxiety and stress can all be traced back to singular dependencies. Whenever you rest all your happiness on one thing then you put yourself in a sticky situation. If that one pillar collapses then you’ve let it bring down the whole temple with it, crushing you, and making it really hard to take any action. Also, because you know that one pillar is all that’s separating you from your doom, you’re going to be in a constant state of anxiety about the current stability of that pillar. When you depend on one pillar you’re going to find yourself either crushed and hopeless or just one crisis away from being crushed and hopeless.
Of course, emotions come and go. But when you can trust in the structural integrity of your happiness you simply need to regain a sense of perspective to regain contentment. You just need to sit calmly in the middle of your quiet temple and be proud of what you have built.
What constitutes a pillar? Essentially anything that brings you happiness, however you choose to define that. Drugs or alcohol could theoretically be pillars. Perhaps they calm you down or help you socialise — or just make you feel good. Having said that, addictive substances are more likely to cause you to begin disregarding other pillars of your happiness. Alcohol is fine as long as it doesn’t become a singular dependency — and begin to dictate your happiness by being the only thing holding your temple roof up.
Essentially you should be constantly drifting from thing-you-like to other-thing-you-like, throughout the day.
You might wake up stressed or anxious or depressed. Rather than dwell on that, remind yourself of your temple. Sit in the middle. Look around. Pick a pillar — and do that activity. Don’t worry too much about any big measuring sticks for how that activity is going. If it’s going well then great, enjoy yourself. But if for some reason it isn’t, don’t worry! Simply shift activity. Go to another pillar and find some enjoyment from that.
Never try and evaluate your life as a whole either. You don’t need to. It’ll just be a made-up narrative anyway. Instead, call a friend, go for a run, get a haircut, help your mum, watch some TV, write a poem, have a great meal and then get an early night. Fill your life with things you like and that bring you a sense of wellbeing. If it sounds obvious that’s because it is! Live in the moment, look to enjoy the activity you’re currently doing. Plan ahead, but mainly to organise things you like for the future!
You should find that you’re able to remain in a state of calm because of the integrity of your temple. Even if one of your pillars looks a bit shaky you know that it’s fine if it does collapse. You’ll have plenty of time to rebuild it if you choose to because all your other pillars are doing a fine job holding up your roof in the meantime. Having multiple dependencies lowers the stakes. You’re never on the edge of a crevice. Instead, you’re calmly pottering around your temple, from a nice thing to another nice thing.
This doesn’t mean you’re going to feel ecstatic all the time. This is a quieter form of happiness than that. It’s freedom from the nagging anxiety that you’re failing life on some kind of profound level. It’s freedom from the sense that you’re one crisis away from never getting up again. It’s trusting in the life you’ve built. It’s trusting in your ability to enjoy things and like things. It’s reframing your world, seeing it as a majority of good times, with the rare occasion of a minor collapse. But these collapses are solvable and not fundamentally threatening to your ability to enjoy life.
Hard work is highly compatible with this world view. You might not find instant happiness when something is challenging. But you know there’s a long term satisfaction to skill-building. So by all means practise your violin. Just don’t do it so much you stop eating or seeing your friends. Don’t make becoming the best violinist a singular pillar — a singular dependency that your happiness is resting on.
This is a theory of moderation. You gain control by avoiding excess. But you can still have fun. By all means, have a late night cause you’re partying. You’re not tending to your sleep pillar that night, but you are socialising and you are having a dance. Just don’t do it six nights in a row because by the end you’ll hate yourself and everyone around you. Stay busy, but stay healthily busy and rest when you need to.
Be kind to yourself and constantly reward yourself. Society is going to do its best to bring you down, so surely you can at least be your own cheerleader! Enjoy the cool breeze sweeping past your pillars and be proud of the temple you have built.