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    Something to Think About: Our first flight

an airplane outside the waiting room window at the airport
Dr. Amit Sood says, "The lower your threshold to be content, the greater meaning you will fulfill."

Dear friend,

My first flying experience was a one-hour flight as a newly married twenty-six-year-old. We got clumsy with the seat belt, didn’t know how to open the overhead bin, and annoyed the elderly gentleman sitting next to us with our ignorant giggles, as we discovered a new world at thirty-six thousand feet. Like three-year-olds, we were seeking fun rather than looking for imperfections.

The novelty has worn off now, for us as well as others. As a result, we have started looking for imperfections.

A few months ago, during a two-hour flight, I was sitting alongside a busy-looking gentleman. He seemed visibly upset. I didn’t hear any curse words, but the frustration was palpable. The reason? The in-flight Internet was not working. He had planned to watch a movie, but that was not to be.

His irritation reminded me of how easily and rapidly we revise expectations. Until very recently, surfing the web at cruising altitude would have been considered too fanciful. Now its absence was enough to discount all the good. He forgot that he was physically comfortable, the flight was on time, he was sipping the beverage of his choice, and many other aspects had gone right that day.

I don’t blame him. This is just the way the human mind works—programmed to be dissatisfied. In this default state, we bypass contentment and thus happiness. This is normal. Normal, however, isn’t optimal. We should take charge of our minds and train ourselves to be content if we (and our loved ones) are safe, are not in pain, have food, and feel loved (by at least one person). Everything else is a bonus.

How do we find such contentment? I find statements that “contentment only comes from within” incomplete. The external world sets the conditions for us to feel content. Abject poverty, imminent danger, emotional abusers, or severe pain—none of these is conducive to contentment. Anxious or depressed minds, or those that are delusional, paranoid, or hate-filled, can’t be content either.

Contentment comes when the external reality matches our inner expectations. In the modern world, we have some control over both. A good pursuit simultaneously enables deeper appreciation of reality and lowers the expectations, so one feels content while continuing to progress.

Such contentment isn’t meant to imply apathy or lower standards. It is meant to say, I am enough, and I have enough. I will savor what I have and who I am, as I continue to expand what I have and who I am.

What happens once you achieve such contentment? In addition to helping you be happier, kinder, and more effective, your contentment, curiously, gives way to a state of discontent—you’re no longer content with your own happiness; you start caring about many others. You become passionate to decrease the world’s suffering and relieve pain. You no longer seek eternal peace for yourself. Instead, you strive to fill your life with meaning to help others find peace.

A passionate state of discontent geared to fulfill an altruistic meaning is more desirable than blissful contentment from personal success and comfort. In that mixed state of feeling personally fulfilled but discontented with the problems of the world, you’ll discover the greatest happiness.

May you find contentment; may your contentment power your passions.

Take care.

Dr. Sood 2

Read Our first flight and previous blog posts.

Also, follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.

Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.