We are living in an aspirational and, arguably, increasingly self-focused society. Advertising tells us we deserve the best and that we are worth “it”. This attitude spills over into our personal lives, where we convince ourselves that we will be happier once we have a better home/job/partner, or whatever it is that we feel our lives are lacking.
But is this individualistic attitude and living for the future preventing us from seeing what we actually already have?
In my role as a Pastoral Carer for the charity Pet and Companion, I meet many people enduring various forms of hardship and others nearing the end of their lives. Possibly surprisingly, the most content are often not the ‘have it all’s’, the least burdened, nor those without financial or health concerns. The most content, I believe, are those who have accepted their situation, are thankful for any positives, and who are more outward looking.
This “acceptance” should not be confused with resigned defeat. Far from it; many of these more contented individuals have fought and conquered, or continue to battle on. It is the focus of their aspiration that differs from the ‘want more’s’.
A prime example of this is Susie.* Susie had a stroke several years ago which left her paralysed, with minimal mobility in one arm and practically inaudible speech. With a smile she says, ‘it could have been worse’. Rather than dwelling on what she is no longer able to do, Susie does what she can. In soft whispers, she asks others about their activities, clearly gaining pleasure from hearing her visitors’ stories.
Taking an active interest in other people’s lives allows this inspiring lady to draw something good from her difficult situation.
Western medicine has also noted the potential mental health benefits of changing patients’ focus. In addition to or instead of prescribing conventional anti-depressants and anxiolytics, many British GPs are now recommending mindfulness, yoga and volunteering to patients diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Yoga and mindfulness encourage the individual to focus on the present and enjoy the ‘small’ things around them. Volunteering not only helps those in need, but can benefit the volunteer by providing a sense of purpose and satisfaction from helping others.
There are undoubtedly periods in life when the suffering is so extreme that outward thinking and being thankful for one’s lot are nigh on impossible. Nevertheless, as we have seen in recent months, it is worth remembering the kindness and community spirit that can emerge during times of hardship and tragedy.
There is nothing wrong with having hopes and dreams for the future. However, taking time to notice and appreciate the good things in our lives and looking out for the needs of others are certainly ways of experiencing contentment in the here and now.
A former Vet, Sarah Jeffrey is now the CEO of Pet and Companion (PEACE), a charity providing Canine Therapy along with Pastoral Care to people in need of support and companionship. www.petandcompanion.com