Welcome to Sing With Your Feet, the podcast in which we get serious about how we invest our emotional energy, so that none of it gets lost or wasted in places it doesn’t belong.
The podcast in which we use one rather common word to represent a different idea, but try to explain why and hope that we can get Cinderella on board with our definition…
The podcast in which we argue that to stop shopping can be the most impactful thing we can do for our happiness.
My name is Lily Fields, and I am going to be your fairy godmother for the next half hour or so.
“Now now now, Lily Fields…”
Oh that? That’s you. Cinderella, country bumpkin extraordinaire. You like to show up now and again in the podcast to object to some of the less popular or more confusing things I say. You keep me honest.
“Lily Fields, I can already tell that I am not going to like this episode. You are trying to pull the wool over my eyes, aren’t you? Telling me that one thing means another? Telling me to stop shopping? Who do you think you are?
Well, my dear, as I said a minute ago, I am your fairy godmother. And if we are here together today, it’s because you have a problem.
“How dare you!”
Well…I mean, here you are, you’ve got Prince Charming. You’ve got a home. You’ve got everything you could have ever wanted. You should be happy, shouldn’t you?
But you’re not, are you?
Don’t give me that look, Cinderella. I have a five year old who rolls his eyes better than you do.
Isn’t it odd that we can have everything we ever wanted, but we still aren’t satisfied with our lives? It’s a kind of no-win situation.
We seem to have this endless capacity to want, and when that want is fulfilled, we want again.
In some ways, it’s a good thing. I mean, it’s not because we have eaten once that we need never eat again. This is by design of course. The survival of the human race depends on our capacity to seek out fulfillment of our needs.
But just as the quantity of things that exist has grown exponentially since the earliest days of human beings, so has our desire to seek those things out and possess them.
Today’s topic is that of Contentment, and I am going to try to argue that in the same way that our views on obtaining food have changed since the earliest humans, from hunting and gathering to fill our bellies to a trip to a reliably full grocery store, we might need to reconsider our relationship to stuff and the accumulation thereof.
Is it a fun topic? No. But I hope to make it palatable. The truth is that it’s really desperately important…for our mental health and for the planet. So I hope you’ll stay tuned to hear what I have to say.
Contentment is just one of nineteen themes we’ve been covering on the podcast. These themes make up the “Ideal Life”, which you can imagine to be circles on a gigantic, beautiful, intricate Venn Diagram that makes up the blueprint for your life.
Each person’s blueprint looks different, because each of us have our own interests, backgrounds, talents, belief systems… But the way those circles overlap are how we are most assured to find joy in our lives. And joy is the currency we trade in here on this podcast.
So grab yourself a cup of tea, darlin’. Let’s talk about contentment.
What is Contentment ?
I know that I’m opening myself up to criticism when I define today’s topic, but I guess…well…it’s worth it to me because this topic is the very heart of why I became interested in pursuing my Ideal Life in the first place.
A rather broad, easy to digest dictionary definition of Contentment is: a state of happiness or well-being. I think we can all agree to that, there’s nothing controversial in that.
There is certainly something even more feel-good-y about the word Contentment than the word Happiness.
The word “content“ conjures up an image of a fuzzy little kitten with a full belly snuggling on a lap. Or an old couple watching the ocean hand in hand.
I think we all might agree to that, too. Contentment, one might argue, is a broader, perhaps calmer version of the more energetic “happiness“.
But that isn’t going to be my definition of Contentment, either.
I remember, as a child, as a fairy godmother in training, if you will, hearing my mother use the word “content“ to describe people and animals, and since I didn’t know exactly what it meant, I kind of invented a meaning for it. It was a blissful state of plenitude. Having everything I could ever want or need. Being in want of nothing.
This only stood to highlight that in my life, from my very earliest memories, I have struggled with a very specific kind of problem, and it is one that has severely cut into my experience of Contentment. To be honest, for as long as I can remember, it has been my single greatest source of discontent.
Here it is, confession time, so get ready to clutch your pearls: I always seem to want things that I should not or cannot have.
One of my earliest childhood Christmas memories is of my sister Poppy receiving a Jenny doll (do you remember the Mandy and Jenny dolls?) I can still feel the ache of longing that felt like a low-level electric shock. That doll became all I could think about. Mixed in with my pure admiration and adulation of the beauty of this doll, was a feeling of jealousy.
Jealousy is a wicked, wicked feeling, isn’t it? Jealousy and admiration turned me into a deranged monster. The two together created a childish experience of self-righteousness that made it obvious to me that I had been wronged and that the doll should be mine.
Whatever gift I had received that Christmas paled in comparison to the beauty of that doll. I could think of nothing else, to the point that my parents eventually took me to the toy store to get my own Jenny doll, just to shut me up.
I should have been happy, right? I was going to get what I wanted. Except that once we got to the store, there was an even more beautiful doll named Mandy, who I fell in love with and suddenly wanted more than anything else in the world.
So here, somewhere between the ages of three and five years old, I broke one of the Ten Commandments for the first time. Oh, yeah. Because that’s absolutely what I was doing.
There’s an extremely old-fashioned and religious-y sounding word for this problem I have and have had sinceI was a toddler, and that word is “covetous.“ I am a coveter.
I see things I like, that please me for some reason, and I instantly convince myself that those things would make my life better and that I need that thing.
Once I have myself needing that thing, then I start plotting to obtain the thing. (No need to go imagining a kind of Ocean’s Eleven kind of thing here. The objects of my desire are usually mundane. Embarrassingly mundane, even!)
The plotting can be as simple as imagining taking a different road home from where I am in order to stop somewhere to buy…oh, I don’t know. An ice cream scoop shaped like an ice cream cone. (I said it was mundane!)
Or more complicated, like, figuring out how much allowance money I would need to save up to buy that stonewashed denim jacket from K-Mart when I was like 9.
None of this is wrong, really. I mean, it’s inconvenient to live with this kind of hamster wheel in the back of my mind all the time, but there’s nothing wrong about it. Theoretically, as long as I am not stealing anything, it’s okay, right?
But here is where the cycle gets vicious: the minute. Literally, the minute the object would come into my possession, I would feel buyer’s remorse. There was no honeymoon period. This object was no longer enough. There was no satisfaction.
It would not be long before a new object would take its place on the pedestal and the whole cycle would start again.
I used to call this the “Cycle of Dissatisfaction,“ or “The Cycle of the Imperfect Life“ but I learned a few years ago that there is actually a term in the psychological literature for this phenomenon, and that is “The Hedonic Treadmill.“
I mentioned back in Episode 4, called MacGyvering KonMari, that getting to the heart of my stuff problem was troublesome as long as I kept adding to the stuff in my possession. So…along with doing a mega-decluttering, I also needed to deal with my incessant need to add to my possessions.
And to do this, I needed to figure out how to pursue satisfaction. And that was when I came to define this elusive feeling of satisfaction as “Contentment.“
So, the circle on the Venn Diagram of my life in which I sought to deal with my “stuff“ problem became conflated with my pursuit of Contentment.
So for the purpose of this podcast, I will use the admittedly rather confusing defintion of Contentment as being “my relationship with my stuff and learning to be satisfied with what I already have.“
I know, I know. I wish it were simpler. But I think you can handle this slightly confusing definition.
Part One: The Ideal Life
Defining our Ideal Life is about measuring the parameters of those circles on our beautiful Venn Diagrams. Determining how opaque they are, and how they fit together with the other circles.
One way to start defining and measuring those circles is by answering this prompt: In my Ideal Life, I am a person who…who what?
I’ve done this for myself in a comprehensive way, but even now, years after I started doing this, sometimes I will add to my In My Ideal Life statements. Life changes require that we stay flexible. In any case, after I did this in a global way, I went in and started categorizing the statements…any statements that seemed to belong together I lumped together, and then analyzed them to determine what it was that made them similar.
That is how I ended up with 19 themes. You might have more than I do, or less than I do. But for the podcast’s purposes, let’s go with the 19 I found.
Here are a few of the statements that rose to the top on the theme of Contentment, AKA: Stuff.
In my Ideal Life, I am a person who:
- takes care of what she has
- knows what she likes
- isn’t swayed by fads or trends
- Is willing to spend a little more money for something that lasts
- prefers empty space to the presence of stuff
- has a wishlist and isn’t afraid to ask for what she really wants
- can tidy my home for guests in less than 30 minutes because there isn’t stuff that doesn’t have a place to be put away
- never feels overwhelmed by the mess
- keeps flat surfaces clear
- doesn’t buy something just because it’s a good deal
- keeps a running list of repairs that are needed
- does not impulse shop
Part Two: Our Stuff and Our Hearts
A lot of what I say is borderline churchy stuff, and I feel like I should apologize for that. I’m in no way qualified to talk about that kind of stuff, and in no way is the purpose of this podcast to convince anyone of anything.
However…there is some really good stuff in the Bible that I feel like doesn’t get enough airtime. Like…you know, all that stuff I go on and on about with the Golden Rule (which honestly, I have been hitting pretty hard the last few weeks. Sorry about that)…the problem being that we can’t love others as we love ourselves if we don’t love ourselves first.
I tend to fixate on that a little bit, because it seems like there is a whole really important bottom rung missing to the ladder of such a simple edict as “love your neighbor as yourself.“
Sorry, I absolutely promised myself I wouldn’t go off on a tangent about the Golden Rule today, and here I am again.
But the truth is, I grew up in the church, and so a lot of those teachings got lodged into my heart at some point, and because I have had such a hard time with what seems to me to be a conflicting message between what I see churchy-people doing and what I hear them saying, well, that dissonance grew into some healthy skepticism on my part.
I get particularly disturbed when I hear churchy people getting on their high horses about things that aren’t even addressed in the Bible, when they haven’t figured out how to live out the most basic things like the Golden Rule. That includes things like telling the truth and being kind.
I can’t hear people talk when they are being unkind. And I certainly can’t take them seriously if I believe that they are being deceitful.
I really do believe that there is some good stuff in the Bible that I have spent a lot of my life trying to live out in concrete ways. Not perfectly, obviously. But in ways that feel coherent and true to me so that I don’t feel like a hypocrite. (I mean, maybe I am your run of the mill everyday 9-5 hypocrite, but not a 24/7 hypocrite…)
So, here’s another one of those little gems that I love to take out of context:
Where your treasure is your heart will be too.
I’m pretty sure we’ve brought this up before, too, because it truly is an idea that I find profoundly simple:
Remember how we said that each of us receives three resources during the course of our lives, and those resources are what we have to make this world a better place? We have said that those three resources are our Time, Talent and our Treasure.
Whatever it is that I spend my money on, or spend time on, or give my talent to, well, that is what I pour my thoughts and my emotional energy into, too.
And while my thoughts and emotional energy are not critical elements of the circulatory system, I like to think that they do make up what I would call colloquially, my heart.
It seems to me, and to my simplistic observational skills, that the more money I spend on something, the more my heart resides with that object. We took the example once of a brand new iPhone plunging towards a toilet. You’ve had that happen once, and you’ll now what I’m talking about.
Or…I don’t think I did tell you this story before, so here goes: For many years, my husband and I parked our car in a public parking lot behind our apartment building.
There is a large buckeye tree in the middle of that parking lot. We never noticed what had been happening to our car’s roof every fall, until when we were about to trade in our car for a brand new car, and our trade in’s value was being estimated. We discovered then that the roof was pocked with dozens of dents.
I can guarantee you that that very day we rented an indoor parking space for our brand new car, to the tune of 40 bucks a month. Because where our treasure is, our heart will be too.
This goes to show that very often, we have to invest more treasure to keep our treasure safe.
It’s a cycle, like a little tropical depression that picks up speed and starts absorbing everything around it…getting bigger and bigger and more powerful.
I know I sound like I am making a mountain out of a molehill, here. You might object, saying, “but Lily, that’s just the cost of living these days…“
I agree, and I hear you. But I am very very concerned about what has become our dependence on our stuff, and our (my, first and foremost, and our meaning my family’s) evolving needs for things that are snazzy but expensive and take up a ton of space in our hearts.
I’m not advocating for an Amish-like rejection of modern conveniences (although a lot of people who know us think that we are kinda weird in how slow we are to adopt innovations. I mean, we have no microwave, no television, no dishwasher and we just got our first smartphone in 2022.)
But I am so concerned about Contentment and being satisfied with what I have, and have managed to convince my husband to be concerned about this, too, that we are willing to make do and make sacrifices to live very very simply.
For us, this manifests in many ways, but two of them are: choosing to live beneath our means (including staying out of debt) and fixing, mending, reusing and wearing out everything we own.
We call these two principles Frugality and Stewardship.
“Stewardship: careful, thoughtful use and maintenance of what we own or that for which we have Responsibility.“
Shh…do you hear that? It sounded like the Philosopher Princess. Oh dear. I hope we don’t wake her up today. Do you remember her? She is the weirdo who likes to talk about virtue and how the pursuit of virtue is the path to happiness. I think she stole that from Artistotle.
Quickly, just so that you can nod politely in case you ever are confronted by her, yes, indeed, frugality and stewardship are two of some 101 virtues she likes to yaw on and on about. Along with things like Generosity, Simplicity, Kindness, Honesty…
Incidentally. On the point of Generosity? Remember what we said about money and our hearts? Where are treasure is our hearts will be too? Well. Think about that for a second. Being generous with our treasure is an act of investing our heart in something we deem to be worthwhile.
All right. I think she has fallen back asleep…
I hope I didn’t offend you, Cinderella, with all this talk about virtue and money and coveting and stuff. I know that it’s awkward, because talking about these things immediately shines light on the hypocrisy of the speaker’s own behavior.
In this case, the speaker is me, and I am not above reproach, by any means. But I want, above all, to be authentic and candid and honest about what I think is a fundamental element to Contentment: learning to be satisfied with what we have.
And that is what we are going to take on in the next segment.
Part Three: You should really stop shopping
So let’s get practical for a second. How can we grow in Contentment?
For a long time, when it comes to having too much stuff, I would have said that doing a big giant “decluttering festival“ a la Marie Kondo was the way to start. But I find that there is a wealth bias inherent in the admonition to “only keep the things that bring you joy“.
I still adhere to the KonMari method of decluttering, and if you need a quick shot of change, it’s a great place to start. I mean, by reducing the amount of stuff you have, you are reducing the number of places your heart has to be at one time.
This is clearly a good thing. But the truth of the matter is that not everyone has the financial cushion to know that if they declutter something that “doesn’t bring them joy“ today, but then discover that they actually need that item tomorrow, that they can go out and buy a new one.
Listen. I don’t love my girdle. It brings me no joy. But that isn’t a good enough reason to declutter it. I can’t, and I wouldn’t today go out and spend money on a new one for when I will eventually need it. Did I say girdle? I meant shapewear. Shapewear, girdle. Whatever. Fairy godmother semantics.
So today, I adhere to the practice of keeping items that are useful.
What I have discovered is that decluttering isn’t the only way to reduce the number of objects I own that will ultimately be taking up space in my heart.
Another way is to put a moratorium on purchases.
For example, in 2021, I made a decision to buy no clothes. Nothing, not even socks or underwear.
Or, as of this very moment, I am using my computer with ice packs underneath it so that it doesn’t overheat, because the fan doesn’t work anymore. No, it’s not practical, but it is helping me get the last bit of usefulness out of my computer.
A moratorium is a specific time period during which you challenge yourself to make do with what you have. It also could be deciding that you will not replace your smartphone or your computer until a certain date.
Learning to “make do“ calls on Creativity, which is, by the way, one of the circles on the Venn Diagram of our Ideal Life.
So, should this discussion of Contentment, or your relationship with your stuff be something that has spoken to you a bit, I want to highly recommend that first, before anything else, you stop shopping.
It’s a special kind of personal challenge, to stop shopping. Because we shop for a lot of reasons…out of necessity, yes, but also for myriad other reasons. “I’m stressed out. I’m bored. I just need to pass the time. I’m feeling unloved. I deserve a little treat…“
By setting a personal challenge to stop shopping, you then have to start taking on those reasons differently. You have an opportunity to start questioning the discomfort that you might have been numbing, using shopping as your Novocaine.
It’s not therapy, by any means. And if you need therapy, then please get it. But this is a tiny step to facing some of our internal conflicts.
In my blog I wrote a whole series called “You should really stop shopping.” I will link to it in the show notes, in case you’re interested.
The Ideal Life Exercise
As we do with each of these themes, I ask myself four easy questions about the theme we are covering.
This is an exercise I do every morning, about just one topic each day. So, this week, we are going to ask those four questions about Contentment .
- What is working? For example, I was super mindful about using up the last of the shampoo before opening a new one. I know that sounds like a tiny victory, but it feels really good to use things up. I find that getting the last drop of use out of something increases my experience of Contentment. Maybe it can for you, too.
- What isn’t working? Oh, this one is easy. With back-to-school comes the tragi-comedy of everyone dropping their shoes and backpacks at the door and not putting them where they belong. This drives me crazy and shoots my Contentment level about my housing situation into the negatives.
- What do I need to think about? To tackle what isn’t working, maybe I need to think about our habits and routines, and pick better places for these school items to go when we get home. If it’s pissing me off, then I need to do something about it.
- What can I do today to get me closer to my ideal life? Oh this one is super easy. I need to declutter our shoe bins and take out all the shoes that don’t fit anyone anymore. That one little project will surely have an impact on my contentment this week.
Listen, I don’t know you very well, Cinderella. But I want to believe that we share a common desire to be happy and satisfied with our lives.
You deserve to be happy and satisfied with your life, but I don’t think that more stuff is the answer. I would really like to encourage you to re-evaluate your relationship with your stuff.
I’m not over here suggesting that you live the life of a monk, but I do think that living more simply and with less stuff can have a positive impact on your experience of contentment.
Would you be willing to try it? Set yourself a little challenge? Declutter, or stop shopping for a certain period of time?
Being alone with your thoughts, and confronting the urges to accumulate as they arise can be an amazing window onto your mental health.
Thank you so much for listening to the podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe on your podcatcher, and please, if you enjoy something you’ve heard here please share it with someone you think could use a fairy godmother, too!
A great big thank you to Seven Productions here in Mulhouse France for the use of the song La Joie (which, by the way, is French for the “Joy” ) as the Intro and Outtro to the show. Also, thanks to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.
Talking Points: Where do you keep your heart?; The Mandy and Jenny doll tragedy; You should really stop shopping.
Episode 30: is part of our series on the Ideal Life Categories, this week’s theme being “Contentment.” The series began back in Episode 15: The One About Our Bodies, in case you want to get caught up!
You Should Really Stop Shopping: https://lilyfieldschallenge.com/2021/10/25/you-should-really-stop-shopping-part-one-living-off-the-land/
You can contact Lily by email: email@example.com, or find her other work here: https://linktr.ee/lilyfieldschallenge
You can contact Lily by email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her other work here: https://linktr.ee/lilyfieldschallenge
A great big thank you to Seven Productions, https://7prod.fr/, here in Mulhouse France for the use of the song La Joie for the Intro and Outtro to the show. Also, thanks to Matt Kugler who sang it and Claude Ekwe who wrote it.