Each month at Balanced Achievement we explore various personal qualities that are exhibited by the world’s most successful, happy, and fulfilled individuals. In this on-going series called ‘The ABCs of Personal Qualities,’ we not only highlight individual personal qualities, but also explain why they are so important and provide you with definitive steps that you can take to develop and cultivate the given characteristic within yourself. Today, we look at the personal qualities of Compassion and Contentment, which are both closely related to the levels of happiness and fulfillment that an individual experiences.
For hundreds of centuries, philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual sages have sought to answer the all important question of ‘What makes humans happy?’ At the deepest level of our beings, we all share the exact same desire of finding lasting fulfillment, but few of us can say that we are truly satisfied with life. Various spiritual gurus and self-help leaders hold differentiating views about what actions one should take to increase their levels of life satisfaction.
Some tell us that we should pursue external successes to find happiness, yet others tell us that we need to search within ourselves to uncover the answers to life’s most difficult questions. While the process of finding happiness will certainly be unique for each individual, it is apparent to see that there are two all-important personal qualities that need to be developed by anyone who wants to find sustainable levels of life satisfaction. For this reason, the most basic formula for creating lasting fulfillment can simply be explained as:
Compassion + Contentment = Happiness.
The personal qualities of compassion and contentment are unquestionably two of the most important characteristics that one should strive to develop within themselves. Even spiritual teachers and self-help innovators, who disagree on numerous topics, can find common ground by accentuating the importance of these two qualities. It is certain that your levels of compassion and contentment are directly related to your levels of happiness. Therefore, since every human being’s deepest desire is to find lasting fulfillment, each of us should make it our primary objective to cultivate compassion and contentment within ourselves.
If you plan on taking the time to increase your levels of compassion, it is important to first gain an understanding of what exactly personal quality is, while also familiarizing yourself with the life benefits that come from exhibiting it.
What is Compassion:
The University of California’s Greater Good Science Center, which is dedicated to studying the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of personal well-being, tells us that compassion is,
The feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”
Although the Center likes to separate altruism, or the actions that one takes to alleviate suffering, from compassion, we believe that it is one of the personal quality’s main components. In our estimation, being compassionate means not only having feelings for those who are suffering but also acting in ways that help to alleviate the pain that is felt by humans around the globe.
It is also important to point out that while human suffering in the Western world is primarily associated with negative experiences such as hunger, sickness, old age, and physical pain, we believe that suffering is taking place at a much more mundane level. In fact, we believe that you experience and witness suffering each and every day. At the level of the ego, human beings suffer anytime things don’t go exactly their way or when they briefly experience unwanted circumstances. Think about when you see others get upset in a traffic jam, come home to find your significant other frustrated with work, or sit next to someone on the subway who just seems down. For these reasons, we believe that true compassion should be described as feeling and acting empathetically towards every living being, including yourself, on a continual basis.
Why is Compassion Important:
There are a number of important reasons why compassion is considered one of the most important personal qualities to develop as an individual. Leaders in both the scientific and spiritual communities agree on the notion that by acting compassionately towards others, we actually experience greater levels of life satisfaction and happiness. Scientifically speaking, we can look at an article published in 2014 by the University of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism that highlights 10 scientifically verified benefits that people receive when they act compassionately towards others (see infographic). The article points to a number of studies that have shown how compassionate behaviors activate the pleasure centers in our brains. Spiritually speaking, there isn’t a higher authority on compassion than The Dalai Lama and he also knows this truth all too well. He is famously quoted as saying,
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Another reason why compassion is so important to develop is that it allows us to feel connected to those around us. It is widely believed that human connection is a vital component of life satisfaction, and by taking the time to cultivate it within ourselves, we can feel a greater connection to friends and strangers alike. Lastly, it is important to point to the fact that science has recently shown how compassion is one of the most instinctual human drives, so by acting compassionately towards others and ourselves, we actually move closer to living from our truer and unconditioned selves.
If we are going to similarly develop the personal quality of contentment, it is also important for us to gain an understanding of what it is and familiarize ourselves with the life benefits that come from cultivating it.
What is Contentment:
If you were to look contentment up in a dictionary or thesaurus, you would notice that it is typically thought of as a synonym for happiness and fulfillment. In our estimation, however, we believe that contentment is actually a prerequisite for finding the states of happiness and fulfillment. We like to think of happiness as a more emotionally-charged state that has a tendency to wain depending on one’s situation and circumstances. On the other hand, we think of contentment as a neutral acceptance of one’s current situation, relationships, and circumstances. Whereas an individual who tirelessly pursues new material possessions could experience moments of happiness, an individual who is content doesn’t actively seek to fill a void. Furthermore, a truly contented person not only accepts their life as it is but feels grateful for their life circumstances.
To be content with life also means accepting every experience, person, thought, and the thing with the understanding of impermanence. Since all physical, mental, and emotional phenomena are in a state of constant transformation, there is no logical reason to try to fill an internal void with external experiences and possessions or try to push away particular situations and circumstances. With this being said, we like to think of contentment as an open acceptance of the ups and downs of life without allowing your baseline mood to be determined by the positive or negative circumstances that you are faced with.
Why is Contentment Important:
In a strange paradoxical way, many citizens in the Western world go about their lives as if they are a dog who is focused on chasing their own tail. While the dog is unable to find satisfaction but continues to tirelessly spin in circles trying to clamp down on its tail, humans endlessly pursue more wealth, newer material possessions, and increased social status but never find the lasting happiness they seek. This all too common approach to life has largely been created through social conditioning and advertisement, but the truth of impermanence tells us that there is no possible way to obtain fulfillment through consumption because of the continuously changing reality that we are bound to. This is easy to recognize by observing how individuals who achieve externally focused goals always find that the luster of their rewards wains over time and feelings of inadequacy return.
In addition to this constant yearning for more, bigger, better, and newer things, many of us assume that it is possible to reside in a state of continual never-ending happiness. This belief, however, is also rooted in our ignorance about the realities of life. By merely being born, you are subjected to the suffering that comes as a byproduct of being alive. Not only are we all bound to the process of growing old, becoming sick, and passing away, but we are also faced with the challenge of dealing with smaller experiences of suffering on a daily basis. For example, the feelings of bliss and happiness that we experience after something good happens to us are unsustainable and will eventually transform into different feelings. By chasing the unattainable goal of finding a lasting feel-good high, you unknowingly create dissatisfaction and disappointment in your life.
The only way to reach sustainable levels of fulfillment and happiness is by becoming equanimous toward the inevitable ups and downs of life. This means that instead of seeking material possessions and fleeting feelings of joy, you should work towards developing and cultivating understanding, acceptance, and gratitude within yourself. This is true contentment.
Find Happiness by Developing Compassion & Contentment:
Now that we have explored the personal qualities of compassion and contentment, let’s look at a couple of ways that we can develop and cultivate them within ourselves.
2 Ways to Develop Compassion
- Spiritual Development: If you are to live your life with the personal quality of compassion, it will be imperative that you focus on your own spiritual development. Only by exploring within yourself will you be able to realize and relinquish the destructive mindset that permeates society. By fully understanding the concepts of the ego, impermanence, and interconnectedness, you will naturally become more compassionate. Furthermore, there are a variety of spiritual meditation techniques that have been designed to help individuals develop more compassion. You may want to take a look at our free eBook, Meditation Masters, where you will find a chapter dedicated to the Dalai Lama and the practice of Tonglen Meditation or you may want to look into other compassion-based practices like Metta Meditation.
- Remind Yourself of the Benefits you will Receive: One of the simplest ways that you can develop and cultivate compassion is by creating a list of the positive outcomes that come as a byproduct of compassionate living. By reminding yourself of the wonderful benefits that you will receive, you will naturally begin living from the level of your true self. As you prioritize the development of compassion within yourself, we recommend reviewing your list once in the morning and once in the evening.
2 Ways to Develop Contentment
- Asking Conscious Questions: One of the most effective ways to create lasting change in your life is by regularly asking yourself conscious questions. If your goal is to become more contented with life, there are a variety of questions that you can ask on a daily basis before exploring the answers at the depths of your soul. In regard to contentment, you may want to ask ‘What am I grateful for?‘ ‘What is the deeper nature of reality?’ and ‘Why am I completely satisfied with what I have?’
- Develop Awareness and Cultivate Equanimity: If you are to develop contentment within yourself, it is important to become equanimous, or neutral, towards the impermanent pleasures that you seek and pains that you try to push away. To live with equanimity, however, means that you will have to improve your levels of self-awareness so that you can watch your conditioned reactions towards ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ experiences, people, situations, and circumstances. Fortunately, you have the ability to develop both of these simultaneously through the practice of Vipassana Meditation as taught in the lineage of the great meditation teacher S.N. Goenka.
While there may not be a fail-proof formula for finding lasting happiness, it should be clear to see that by developing and cultivating compassion and contentment you can move closer to living life with the fulfillment that you seek at the deepest level of your being.