By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist
No one ever gets it exactly right, but the right kind of contentment is a precious thing. The quickest way to discombobulate contentment is to analyze it to death, but maybe it can bear a little discussion.
Contentment and happiness are almost twin sisters—conjoined twins, I’d say, sharing vital organs. Their relationship fascinates me, and my rather ample ears perk up when I hear others musing over such things.
C.S. Lewis once commented that his mother’s people “had the talent for happiness in a high degree — went straight for it as experienced travelers go for the best seat in a train.” Happiness, a talent? I think so. Some folks just aren’t very good at it.
A recent 60 Minutes piece caught my attention. Disagree if you wish, but according to that story, more than a few “happiness” surveys consistently show Denmark as at or very near the top. The U.S.? A recent survey said “23rd” or so. Anti-U.S. bias? Maybe. Still interesting.
Denmark’s climate is not all that cheery or its people all that bubbly. But their level of contentment is quite high.
Some factors may make it easier for them. Smaller country. Ethnically and socially non-diverse population. Their massive tax rate and heavy reliance on the government frighten me, but it’s the system they’re accustomed to and, whatever we think of it, they’re basically pleased with what’s provided. Hmm. Their work week is shorter than ours and they have three times more vacation time.
“Basically pleased.” That pretty well describes the Danes.
Happy for the Danes to be happy, I’m glad I live here. But I do think we find contentment elusive partly because we’re proud of not trusting it. We don’t think it’s productive. We’re wrong.
Maybe I’m Danish, but I’d trust trendy “mission statements” more if they’d blather on less about “excellence” and more about “tolerably good generally, better when it’s worthwhile, and the best when it’s truly called for.” Only fools and politicians are so full of themselves that they think genuine “excellence” is possible or desirable in everything. I brush my teeth tolerably well, thank you, not excellently. Neither McCain nor Obama will get the sun to rise, excellently of course, in the south, though either will promise to if you just ask.
Some things you just don’t get. Perfection is one of them. Families, jobs, products, and life don’t have to be perfect to be pretty darn good. Room for improvement? Yes. There is also room for grace, gratitude, and, yes, contentment. A time to leave the office, laugh with your kids, thank God for life and His gifts (the smallest are often the best), lay your head down, and sleep almost excellently well.
Balance sheets say almost nothing about genuine success, but St. Paul did indeed say something about this: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”