Apr 20, 2008

The art of contentment

I've been musing lately on people having unmet expectations and experiencing pervasive discontent with their lives, and the role that this might play in depression or generally poor mental health. I started thinking about this because of a post in a friend's blog, despite this being not at all the main point of her post :)

I started thinking about new motherhood, and the total shock to the system that having a new baby is. I know that for me, and some other Mums I've talked to, the first year of having your first baby is a phenomenal adjustment, and no matter what your expectations are, they are not totally accurate, and often, not remotely accurate.

When our first was only a month or two old, My Plunket Nurse asked about my expectations and how things in real life were comparing to my expectations: were things significantly different to how I expected them to be? Fortunately I was able to say that things were pretty much as I had expected - exhausting, overwhelming, but manageable. She then went on to say that being hugely shocked or surprised at the daily realities of motherhood were risk factors for post-natal depression (which is why it is on her list of things to ask about). That the shock of unmet expectations, on top of all the other stuff you're dealing with, can contribute to feeling like you're not doing it 'right' and that you're 'failing' as a mother - symptoms of Post Natal Depression.

But I know (and know of) heaps of unhappy people in many walks of life - parents, no-kids, single, married, part-time workers, work-a-holics, full-timers, unemployed... And wonder how much of that unhappiness is from similar type causes.

So then I got to thinking about when we left university and first got 'real jobs', the number of conversations I had with heaps of people who were feeling like life was really pointless and "Is this it?!" about working. Their (my) expectations of work life were not matched by the realities of it. Somehow I thought that now that I'd bothered to get a university education and had finally graduated from childhood/teenagerhood that I stood on the brink of adult life and all of life's adventures lay before me... And yet my job was boring and repetitious and I didn't like getting up every morning but I had bills to pay... and I was going to be doing this stuff for the rest of my life?!

So I was wondering if this epidemic of depression that seems to be around is somehow linked to an epidemic of unrealistic expectations? Are we living our lives expecting it to be bright and beautiful and TV-like, with canned laughter and a soundtrack, and then horribly disappointed because we're not living up to some subconscious and unrealistic ideal?

Have we simply lost the art of contentment? Have we forgotten that smelling the air and watching the sun go up and down and congenial conversation and a good book is living life? (regardless of specific circumstance).

I have a tote bag that we bought from our Library when we lived in Palmerston North, which has a quote from Cicero on it;
"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."
Here we are in the 1st world with abundant resources - gardens and libraries beyond the wildest dreams of Cicero - and many of us still feel that this is not enough. That life should be bigger, better, faster and more fulfilling.

And, you know what?, just as I'm typing this in, I'm thinking that this is exactly how "They" want us to feel. "They" being big corporations and their advertiser lackeys. Obviously, they want us to always want more, bigger, brighter gadgets. But more subtly, "They" also want a hungry workforce - otherwise people will be happy to not work two jobs and overtime. If we have ever bigger, brighter 'needs', then we 'need' to do whatever work "They" want us to do.

But perhaps we can also add Tertiary and other educational institutions to the list of "They". Why is it that reading interesting and challenging literature from the public library, and thinking interesting thoughts is "filling in time", while paying out thousands of dollars to sit in a lecture theatre and take notes about what someone else thinks about a subject is "education"? Why is DIY thinking not good enough? Why does someone else's PhD make their opinion more valid or educational than mine?

Okay, getting long and rambling here, and I think I'll end it.

Should add of course, that I'm not wanting to minimise biochemical/hormonal/other causes of depression, but am curious about whether this loss of contentment, and always thinking things should be better than they are is a factor too.

And also, of course, there are circumstance where 'being content' is not appropriate - abusive relationships etc.

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