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Real Joy, Right Now

Do you often hear yourself saying, "When such and such happens, then I'll be happy"? Why wait for happiness when it's available to you right now, at this moment?

By Sally Kempton

Step One: Stop and Focus

One of the watershed moments in my own journey toward contentment happened in 1980. I was about to give a presentation to several thousand people when, at the last minute, I was asked to change my talk. The change made me late for my own program and very nervous. As I raced down the hallway toward the audience, I could feel my heart thumping, my breath thready with fear. My mind began a familiar spiral into despair—I knew I'd never pull off the presentation in that state. I was in a near panic.

Then, out of nowhere, I realized that it wasn't necessary for me to give in to my panic. I stopped in the middle of the hallway and began to coach myself. "Breathe," I told myself. "You're fine. Even if you do mess this up, you'll still be a good person."

This was such an unexpected thought that it almost didn't compute—like most overachievers, I fully believed that my self-esteem could not survive a failure. Yet as I said it, I became aware that there was indeed an undercurrent of good feeling beneath my panic, a faint part of me that actually was OK. And then I made a radical inner shift: I gave myself permission to hang on to that undercurrent of grace, that sense of contentment with myself, come what may. As I resumed my race to the podium, I deliberately and consciously stayed focused on that sense of well-being. I don't remember how other people reacted to my presentation. I just remember that while I was doing it, I felt good. And that had never happened to me in a high-pressure situation before. It was remarkable.

It was also fleeting. I'd caught a glimpse of the possibility of contentment, but ultimately, my experience was just a short-term fix. There are many such ways you can buy yourself moments of temporary contentment—you can talk back to your judgmental inner voices, stop and watch your breath, do a yoga pose, focus your mind on everything you have to be grateful for and whisper, "Thank you." But the self-undermining—the doubt, the niggling desire for something more or something different—always kicks back in. It's much harder to hang on to a feeling of contentment for the long haul, to make it a permanent part of your life.

The dictionary defines contentment as a "state of satisfaction with one's possessions, status, or situation." What the dictionary doesn't say is that contentment is a state you have to bring up from inside yourself—often while you're clamped in the jaws of loss, disappointment, or change. After dedicating 30 years to finding it, I've reached the conclusion that the only way to get to lasting contentment—the kind that's there even when the bottom is falling out of your life—is to undertake a transformative journey. And the way to start is by looking squarely into the causes of your own dissatisfaction.

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Reader Comments

joan kushner

why do you think that taking prozac gives one 'contenment'? it's simply not true.

shirley knudsen

Tjhank you for giving me some hope with your amazing article "Real Joy Right Now".
I am in a terribly dark place right now .Instead of my boys leaving "the nest" I had to leave my 3 teenage sons to follow my husband up the "corporate ladder to another town 200 miles away. Having just arrived my mother died suddenly of a heart attack, my brother died shortly after of bowel cancer and a short time my husband was out on his mountain bike and had a massive heart attack and died instantly. I didn't even get to say "good-bye to him". My 3 sons all live far away and I feel very alone.
I will work through what you have written and thank you once again for giving me hope.

Shirley Knudsen


What a fitting article. I claimed bankruptcy and lost my job all in one year and I am about to go on social assistance, if I qualify. As weird as it sounds, I am even afraid to say I am at peace. It is as if the universe gave me an opportunity to start over again and this time to make things right. I feel a sense of contentment at the moment, however, can only imagine a small voice in my head saying "how can you be so calm?" I respond to it by saying the universe shall provide.

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