Read an Excerpt
Discontent: The Initiation
Restlessness is your first clue.
Discontent can creep into your life, making you feel uncomfortable, as if sitting too long in a cramped space. Initially, discontent can make you grumpy and coax you into a bad mood. Later, as discontent settles more permanently into your routine (I hate my job, I'm so lonely, I can't get ahead), you feel much more sour about your life and your future. Discontent is heavy. It dampens your spirit and whites out your hope. Discontent can make you feel sluggish, dissociated, disinterested, even disabled. Discontent starts with a single facet of your life, but left unchecked, it can eventually overwhelm your entire life.
This isn't depression -- you are functioning pretty well and you're not sad -- but you're definitely not happy either. You just can't seem to get comfortable. Discontent comes in many guises and for all occasions. It's epidemic and unique, mutable and fixed, relentless and forgiving. Discontent appears to be an enemy of all that is good in your life, and when it leaves, you're grateful -- not only for finally feeling good again, but because you feel even better than you did before. You're more solid and more confident. Now you're able to create even more happiness.
Discontent strips you to your most vulnerable to reveal to you your strength. It wrestles you to the ground until you yell "Uncle!" and surrender to its grasp.
No matter how happy you think you are, if you're getting fidgety, you're coming down with a case of discontent. Here are some common symptoms.
Dragging out of bed every morning.
Increased cravings for coffee, sugar, binge foods, or alcohol.
Decreased interest in pleasures.
Too much TV.
Putting on weight.
Laughing less -- especially at yourself.
Calling all glasses "half-empty."
Looking for approval from anyone who can give it.
Often using the term "It's not fair."
Putting yourself down.
Putting others down.
Constantly being asked "What's wrong?"
Feeling overlooked, unappreciated.
Feeling tired even when you're rested.
Feeling as if your life is in someone else's hands.
Lying because you're afraid that truth isn't good enough.
Being suspicious of others.
Losing your temper.
Listen to the rumbles beneath your daily life. As you face your unique race against time, tasks, and the demands of a job and family and your life, take a moment to pay attention to your underlying feelings. If you do, you may notice that discontent is often there, growling from a corner of your psyche through the peaceful moments. It may emerge during a traffic jam, or after a phone call from a friend. It may jab at you during unguarded, undistracted moments so that in a split second your composure, your peace of mind, and your mood all deteriorate.
I'm a perfect example. While I have most of what I've always wanted in life -- my husband, my child, work I love, and the health of my loved ones -- I'm still prone to ignoring the claws of discontent. I like to keep things moving. I want to be a supportive partner and an attentive, good mother. I want to continue to write and speak and evolve in my work. But when I find myself wishing I lived within the easy parameters of a TV sitcom where problems get solved in thirty minutes, or when I start envying the characters who live on Birdwell Island in my daughter's favorite Clifford cartoon, I know that discontent has come to visit. I notice myself in a fantasy of other perfect worlds when all I have to work with is right in front of me. I know that discontent is not an omen of bad times, but I also know it takes work and energy to deal with it. And it doesn't go away in thirty minutes of snappy dialogue.
Part of me wants to be discontented all the time. This bizarre urge is no doubt born from two distinct idiosyncrasies. The first is my peasant within who thinks that the evil eye won't fall on me if I don't smile. That's a fake-out, a way to affect unhappiness in order to avoid it. The second is slightly more complex. Discontent is not a bad thing. In fact, the fruits of discontent are generally sweet, and you will most likely "fix" your discontent by bettering yourself or your circumstances. Discontent forces you to make changes in your life to rediscover contentment or happiness. This is why I almost want to be in some evolving discontent; that way I know my life is going to improve, that the "dis" will disappear and leave me contented.
Thank goodness for discontent. Without it, I'd never have gotten off that couch in Wisconsin and moved out into the world, where adventure, love, opportunity, change, and other spicy moments awaited me. Thank goodness for feeling lousy, bored, angry, ignored, put down, overlooked, and just about every other offense one can feel from the world. Without those unpleasant prods, I wouldn't have found or defined my passion and my compassion, my truth and my humor, my laziness and my ambition.
My experiences with discontent have spurred me to become an expert in how to get happy again or, at least, how not to be unhappy.
During my thirteen years with Madison Avenue ad agencies, I learned how to evaluate the desires, aspirations, wants, and needs of all different kinds of people. (The best marketing strategies will diagnose a source of consumer discontent and offer a compelling solution -- for a price.) On a less pragmatic level, I compounded my understanding of discontent with fifteen years of study in the areas of astrology, meditation, intuitive and psychic powers, and alternative beliefs and philosophies. When I left advertising to write books, I also started a consulting business that helps clients identify and pursue career goals, navigate choices, and keep up with the changing marketplace. I use astrology, tarot cards, and metaphysical information to help my clients dissolve their discontent and open to their best possible futures.
Just as powerful in my training, though, are my personal experiences with discontent -- and I'll share many of them with you. I am an Instructor, but I'm also attending continuing-education classes in life.
That is true for you, too. Discontent will be the driving force for most changes in your life. And it should be. That's why these Instructions will be handy.
The Creative State of Discontent
Discontent can be a blessing. It is an intensely creative state that nags and pokes you to get yourself going and accomplish what you really want in life.
I regard almost my entire career in advertising as one of my most flagrant and long-term discontents. At the outset, I was grateful to have found my first job at a prestigious company. I realized quickly, though, that I didn't give a nut for the toilet cleaner I was to help sell, or for the cheap perfume I was to help create. I had no authentic enthusiasm for my work. On top of that, I had to learn and play the game of managerial politics and adhere to corporate-soldier rules. I felt like an actress, dressing for the role of "get-ahead" executive while harboring an eye-rolling scofflaw in my suit.
I soon realized that I despised what I was doing and for whom I was doing it, and that I was one Crabby Appleton. Add up thirteen years of doing it, and I was a veritable bitch in pumps.
I'm still friendly with some of the people I knew in my advertising career, many of whom are happily and effectively marketing products and services. They tease me once in a while about how completely impossible I was back then, and we laugh over the old stories we share. And in retrospect, I know I am blessed to have had every moment of that experience. Being in advertising and greatly discontented gave me my first taste of real-life issues, situations, and conflicts. Everyone had his own agenda. A few people actually cared about the work, but most were either jockeying for power or trying to avoid responsibility. Pass the buck and make a buck. Through working with difficult people, I learned patience and how to make myself heard. From making mistakes, I learned how to take blame and how to dissolve useless finger-pointing. I also tried to learn to keep my mouth shut, which is something I continue to struggle with. Most important, though, I learned to hone my intuition and to trust my feelings rather than rationalize and try to go with the group's way of thinking. I learned so much more than just how to sell soap. And I got frustrated enough to leave the business to do something I love.
I harbor enormous compassion for people in that creative state called discontent, and I hold extraordinary certainty that they -- and we -- will find a way out of it.
Surrendering Is the First Fight
I recall when I attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I was a freshman, studying "Pre-Business" (that's a whole other discontent story), and living on my own away from Wisconsin for the first time. I had been determined to fly from my Midwestern cocoon and attend college in the East. I arrived with gusto, in search of a studious yet Love Story-worthy year of deep experiences.
I got nothing like it. I lived in an unromantic high-rise dormitory. My roommate was never there and I was lonely. While my high school friends enjoyed themselves at the University of Wisconsin and went through rush, I tried desperately to find spirit in a lackluster football team. It wasn't that I liked football, but that's what you were supposed to do in college, I thought, and I worked on posing as best I could as Ali MacGraw's Jennie, studious yet impossibly good-looking in a natural sort of way. I failed on all fronts. Pretentious behavior is a great symptom of discontent. I wasn't happy because I was trying to force an experience that for me wasn't authentic, organic, or true. But I tried: no way was I going to regret coming here. I took classes at Amherst College; I went to lectures at Smith. I stopped short of wearing knee socks and plaid skirts, but the thought crossed my mind. I hated it all. Reading the letters I received from my high school buddies (this was before e-mail) filled me with longing and envy. What was I missing? Was I really missing anything? Maybe they were just embellishing their good times.
I tried to keep my chin up, but eventually I succumbed to teary phone calls home. When my father suggested I transfer back to the University of Wisconsin, I muttered a few weak protests and then admitted the truth: I was unhappy, I had made a poor choice. I was full of discontent.
This is the critical point in dismantling discontent. You don't have to cry (but it's common) and you don't have to see a therapist or an astrologer (but that can be helpful, too). You only have to admit how you feel. That final breaking point when you confess that you're not okay is usually "turnaround" time. Discontent stops pressuring you.
Liberation comes next, and that requires invoking your own energy to break out of those limitations. Once I gave myself permission to leave U-Mass, I dealt with my pride, which had kept me from ever considering a change of school, and I applied for a transfer.
I remember, back in my senior year of high school, announcing to my friends, "I just wouldn't fit in at a Big Ten school. I could never go there." A statement like that is practically the kiss of death when it comes to discontent. If you litter your sentences with "I could never" or "I'm just not that type," you can pretty much be sure that eventually you'll have to do it. And that's a hard surrender to face.
My former astrology teacher and close friend Susan Strong always reminds me (when I'm steeping in some new discontent), "You get what you resist." It's totally true. Whatever you absolutely refuse to consider at the outset of your discontent is probably going to take center stage. So dance with your monsters. Welcome the pain. The critical point of shifting out of discontent is admission, but the only way to liberate yourself is by transition: taking an active role and doing something about it. It doesn't sound so good, but it works.
Knowing you're not in good shape is great, but you'll stay there or worsen if you don't take action. Inaction at the critical point results in depression.
No Denying It
Discontent is not something you should deny any more than you would deny a lump under your arm. For a physical problem, such as a lump, human nature would scare up a load of reasons why it's probably nothing, but you would still be encouraged (by your friends if not your conscience) to have it examined, diagnosed, and dealt with. Discontent isn't so pressing or ominous, and you can't go and have it "cured," but you can be your own doctor, in a way, and at least delve into self-diagnosis.
You can, and probably will, try to ignore the ugly feelings associated with discontent for some time. When you can't talk yourself out of your uneasiness anymore, you'll have two choices: conscious denial or active acceptance. Conscious denial will eventually land you somewhere among three conditions: dysfunctional living, addiction, or depression. Usually, you get a combination platter.
Some people choose nonaction. They just get angrier inside but never let it out; they refuse to do anything at all to help themselves. I've seen it with passive-aggressive people. It's irritating to those who love them, and after a while, these folks are seriously unlovable.
Nonaction also takes the form of anesthesia, ways to deaden the mind, body, emotions, and spirit instead of feel the pain of discontent. There are many ways to anesthetize. Most obvious is self-medication, such as drinking or popping recreational drugs or binge eating, until you don't notice that you're, like, um, addicted. It's a way of numbing your feelings, but the more you numb, the harder your feelings fight to come to the surface, so the more you need to cover them up. It's a vicious cycle that ends up harming your body.
You can also take your discontent out on everyone around you. But like those passive-aggressive types, sooner or later you won't have a lot of people to pick on. This is where I'm most skilled. Until I worked on myself -- which in many ways was simply about knowing myself -- I was a blamer, a criticizer, a coveter. And I was very much at home in my discontent.
Some people anesthetize themselves with so-called spiritual pursuits, such as dropping out of their relationships, work, or family life to follow a cult or a guru. It's a way of handing over your life to someone else's power, so that even if you're discontented, that choice has been made for you in the name of God. You don't have to take responsibility, just do what you're told. This is a sad cop-out. You don't even get to live your life's potential when you hand your free will to someone else.
"Dysfunctions" can play out in thousands of ways. The core of each, however, is pretty common: putting others' needs before your own. Dysfunctional living is also clearly the result of some contained discontent; dysfunction typically relies on keeping secrets, not telling the truth, indirect communication, and other unhealthy, inauthentic daily behavior. It takes a lot of work to keep up the status quo when your life has an unnatural rhythm or lacks harmony. In many situations where we convince ourselves that the expedient or easy thing to do is also something that makes others happy (isn't that a good deed?), these decisions come back to bite us with discontent.
Basically, you have to be honest and admit that you're experiencing discontent. Then you act on it so you can be happy again. In this book I'm going to open your eyes to various roads you can take, but I can't make you go there. You have to do that on your own.
You can be brilliant, accomplished, prepare a gourmet meal, and raise healthy, well-adjusted children and still fall into discontent. After all, you're still human, vulnerable, and evolving.
Your discontent is different from your neighbor's.
Discontent mutates its way through the population like a virus that adapts to each person's emotional and spiritual immune system. If you're prone to dramatics, your discontent will probably be worn on the outside of your skin so that everyone knows about it. If you're more private, you'll hide it under layers of dignity and calm. Most of us are somewhere in between, baring our anxiety to trusted friends but maintaining a cool facade with others.
Discontent isn't an outside situation. It's always internal. You can't share it or let someone try it on to see how it fits. My brand of discontent feels like a black hole in my belly, an uneasy density that can't be balanced or soothed. It's often expressed in anger. My friend Julia's discontent is a disquiet, a thin veil of anxiety that creates an inaccessible, soft-focused world; it's hard for her to connect to the outside. She doesn't speak about it. Cherry, another close friend, keeps her discontent to the side until she can't deny it and then is overwhelmed by her own body -- headaches, negative thoughts, instant indigestion. My mother-in-law, a deeply loving woman, feels heavy in her heart when she's steeped in discontent. She feels uncomfortable and worried and can't find a peaceful moment. My husband is different. He talks about being uncomfortable in his skin and constantly fidgets to soothe his malaise.
Your discontent is contained within you exactly the way it's supposed to be. Whether it's in your body, your mind, your heart, or your energy level, it's an insidious presence demanding attention.
The Privilege of Discontent
You'd think that money and power fend off discontent, but they're more like magnets. You don't feel discontent when you're worried about keeping a roof over your head, or when you have some terrible illness or your family is in dire circumstances. If you're in a "state of emergency," you're fully vested in a justifiable survival anxiety. You don't need to examine it, just do what you have to do to make it go away. Discontent is a luxury afforded to those of us who live in relative peace, with plenty of food and no major risks to our health or home. Less fortunate souls living in famine, poverty, deprivation, war, despotism, don't have the luxury of discontent. They just want to be able to live.
Discontent is an integral part of the process of fulfillment, and when you have taken care of your survival and security, you will have a lot of time to think about your fulfillment.
Discontent is a privilege.
Once you're no longer concerned with finding shelter, food, and safety, you are wide open to some prods of discontent. It's my theory that the more money you have, the more acute your needs are. This is because we tend to believe the myth that money can buy just about anything. Yet no amount of dough is going to make you feel good about yourself. It can patch you up with a good-looking mate and perhaps make people treat you with respect (but still be able to turn away and snigger). Yet having money can give you a false sense of being able to appease your discontent because you have more options: a big home, plastic surgery, private lessons (in whatever you want), lavish parties, luxury vacations.
Ultimately, the only cure for discontent, with or without money, is the ability to face it and work with it. You may be able to buy yourself a good therapist, but you still have to do the work yourself.
Those of you who don't have fat billfolds, don't be jealous: you'll get to the root of your discontent faster because you won't have so much money to blow on avoiding it.
I see a lot of discontent. I've seen it in teenagers (they could market it as a bestselling fashion), young adults, and grown-up men and women with lionhearted careers and families who exude perfection. Discontent is a great leveler that takes every one of us back to our basic needs, hopes, and wishes. There is no obstruction in life worse than our own unhappiness.
In most cases when I'm asked for help, I can give it. In a few instances, however, I'm not as effective, and that's when fear has eclipsed hope.
A few years ago, a successful businessman came to see me and told me about his life. He was stymied by his discontent, but he wouldn't admit that much of anything was wrong. His business had hit a rough patch, but he was philosophical about business cycles. He had a great relationship with his daughter and was on reasonably good terms with his ex-wife. He had his health. I asked about his love life and he stated with unconvincing certainty that he wasn't interested in falling in love. He claimed he liked dating casually and that was enough. I probed a little, as one does in front of a false wall, and soon he admitted that his marriage had been a great love that had turned sour, bitter, and horrible. He didn't want to be in that situation again. He was afraid of being emotionally devastated and liked having the upper hand in lighter relationships.
Yet I could sense a longing for love.
I had no way to help him because he was too afraid to admit that he wanted to find a love relationship. I did offer advice about opening up to deeper connections, but he shrugged it off. I felt helpless in the face of his fear. He didn't want to be vulnerable, and his fear of his vulnerability made it impossible for him even to try to open up. He had a gaping need to be in love and refused even to try. He closed the door on hope and thus shut out happiness.
I write this book in hopes that this man and people like him will understand that they can dare to hope again. They can move beyond their isolation in discontent. They are not alone; we all go through it. Like us, they can feel again; not just feel bad, but feel better than ever.
Seven Familiar Signs of Discontent
(aka the Seven Deadly Sins)
Discontent can creep up on us in the form of bad habits or attitudes. You don't necessarily recognize the symptoms right away, but you slowly realize that you're indulging yourself in something you consider "bad." You can often self-diagnose with our old friends, the Seven Deadly Sins. Over time, they might all make an appearance. Here, I speak from personal experience.
I've noticed that I'm prone to gluttony by overindulging in chocolate, French fries, grilled-cheese sandwiches, whatever I crave when I'm feeling down. If I'm teetering on the brink of discontent, one stressful phone call that touches my self-esteem or insecurity can catapult me into the kitchen to rummage through my chocolate reserves. I will still be on the cordless phone as I unwrap an old chocolate bar or, at my lowest, crack open some chocolate chips or cookie dough. Discontent throws me off my diet; it brings gluttonous behavior to the surface. I will eventually find I've gained weight, and that brings about yet another sin, yet another symptom of discontent: vanity. The minute I've gained a few pounds, my self-esteem plummets and I get needy. Tell me I'm smart, pretty, fun, loving -- anything nice -- then tell me again. I need that reassurance. Don't tell anyone that I'm this way, though, because I'll deny it outright. After all, I have my pride.
I just hate it when I see other people managing to keep their weight down and I'm doing time at the Whitman's Sampler. Why can't I look like that? I want everyone to be fat like me or at least, if they're skinny, to be miserable. This qualifies as envy.
What I need is to feel good about myself. I need to be appreciated for all of me! That's why, when I saw those amazing Jimmy Choo shoes in the window, I had to buy them. Of course, all I really needed was a little pick-me-up, a little indulgence to make me feel better. And I do! And since I have those darling shoes, I probably need a nice new outfit to show them off. It's always nice to treat yourself, right? I saw this great skirt and jacket in the window at Armani, and I positively lusted after it. So I bought it. That's it. I've satisfied my desires. No more lusting for more.
Now that I've accepted myself with my fuller figure, I do find myself without so much to wear, though. So I've been shopping, replacing things I need. It's no big deal. My friend got this great handbag in an Internet auction and I was so jazzed by it (another form of discontent peeks in here -- using age-inappropriate slang!), I did it myself. Now I can't stop. It's amazing the stuff you can buy. Not that I need it all, but it's so much fun! Am I being just a tad greedy?
Of course, when my credit card bills arrive, I am furious. I was charged so much interest! I'm really mad. I accidentally yelled at my neighbor when he dropped off one of my bills the mailman had misdelivered to him. I can't believe he called me a hothead. I'm certainly not temperamental -- or defensive. I don't know what he's talking about. I'm not so angry. Am I?
Now that I've got to cool off in the shopping department, I've realized that I'm just tired. I need to rest. I've got to take better care of myself. So I'm not going to the gym just now. And I'm not going to put too much pressure on myself at work. I've got this great book about the ten ways to live life in its simplest form, and I'm going to read it and make sure that I'm operating in a spiritual way. On my couch. No need to exert any effort. Just be. Just breathe. I'll get to all those chores tomorrow. I like being a sloth.
Isn't it amazing how one sin leads to another? I find that this little "sin" test works in almost every kind of discontent. Not everyone goes for the chocolate, of course (although rising obesity rates make a strong case for this one). If you just take a look from a larger perspective, you can pinpoint practically every sin as a major societal trend.
Aside from obesity, there's epidemic consumerism. Think of how many of us are falling prey to gizmos and amusements we don't really need but "have to have." Filling up a hole created by discontent with electronics or clothes doesn't work. Shopping for sport or as a hobby isn't looked upon as a bad thing, but it can definitely be a red flag for discontented behavior.
What about lust? Taboos have broken down to such a degree that it's hard to imagine being seduced by something new. I tend to lust for stuff, feeding that consumer frenzy. But lusty sex is still a place we like to hide, if not just watch, when we are discontented. Isn't that what racy television and Internet sites pick up on? You don't have to act on lust if you can just watch it. Let someone else do the sinning. It's not a sin by association, is it?
Then there's the fascinating push and pull of stocks, bonds, debt, and corporate interests that leave us all to wonder why so much money is in so few hands. Greed is almost a compliment these days. Charity, one of the virtues that counters the sin, is still something found more often in poorer households than in richer ones (people with the lowest incomes tend to give proportionally more to charity). Back to my theory that discontent likes people with money, honey.
Anger is also alive and well and practically acceptable in a large, uncivilized form. The "Make my day" attitude, once celebrated as bold and unique, has broken down to vigilante rigor. There's so much anger floating around, few of us know what to do. Many of us feel underrepresented, underdefended, and ignored by authority. You can read about injustice in the paper every day and feel powerless and voiceless against it; only anger remains. It's fine to be angry now and then, but some people are walking around like grenades ready to detonate. That's explosive societal discontent.
In the end, you can understand sloth. We all have days when we just want to throw in the towel, find a cuddly blanket, and stay in bed. It's so hard to deal with the world; the place is overwhelming. Sloth doesn't sound like sin. It sounds like a reprieve, except that you're not living the life you want, you're escaping the one you hate.
Consider those things that stick in your craw. Recall how easy it is to find fault in the world and how you react to it. Your world, my world, is merely a reflection of all of our energy, our woes, our capabilities. If you're putting out some big discontent, it's going to come back to you. If you're less discontented, the world's going to be a better place. Read on. We can do some nice stuff together.
This Is Not Discontent
I don't want you to think that this book offers you advice for just anything that wrecks your life. It doesn't.
Certain things happen that are just too big for discontent. These events are tragedies, illnesses, losses, or injustices that don't just freeze your life, they transform your life. Untimely death, devastating illness, financial ruin, unjust incarceration -- things you cannot anticipate or imagine happening. But they do. These events evoke horror, grief, fear; they take your breath away. They are too big to be just discontent. For these, you will need more than these Instructions to help you.
In some cases, trauma will leave you with residual discontent that these Instructions can handle. In fact, you might find them amusing during your adjustment or healing. However, if you have been leveled by something terrible, find your family, find your faith, find your friends, and hang on. Better days will come.
Copyright © 2003 Barrie Dolnick