I read this the other day:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got – specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular – then you’re dangerous. You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on…..Throughout history – even a hundred years ago, even fifty – it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it’s contentment. What a strange reversal.[1]

Now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Is it true, I keep wondering?  Certainly, our society is discontent-driven, that much is indisputable. But is it true that we view people as ‘dangerous” who don’t buy into that discontent?

Well, I was quite surprised, a couple of months ago, when I wrote the post on Freegans, how many people were really angry at people who have chosen to opt out of consumerism. But is it true that we consider perfectly content people as dangerous?

And, has society really had such a complete reversal of attitudes in such a short time? And how did this happen?

“Knowing your place” and “not getting ideas above your station” and “being content with your lot in life” were common expressions not too long ago.

So, I’m thinking people in general, then or now, aren’t content. Because if you have nothing to strive for, no hopes, desires, wishes – what are you living for?

What has changed however, I think, is the societal pressure to not be satisfied with any part of yourself, your work, your home, your finances, and your relationships – to always be looking for a fix, a change, for something new and better and bigger.

And how did that happen? (Can we blame Oprah?)

[1] “The Likeness” by Tana French

33 responses to “Discontent

  1. I was going to go with content being considered lazy to those who are over ambitious, but then thought that maybe the key word is angry…More and more people seem to latch onto anger as a way to feel alive and righteous, even though they may claim it is fear motivating them. Sad.

  2. It’s the age-old confusion between “wants” and “needs”. Many of us have made “wants” into “needs”. I *need* that 10-seater SUV. I *need* that 60-inch TV.

    And, like Maslow said, when we don’t fulfill our needs, we get pissed off, and as you said, become discontent.

    Unfortunately I see it all the time in my line of work… people who have dug themselves in a very deep hole because of all the debt they’ve taken on to buy themselves happiness.

    And now, with $30-40k owing, they’re still not happy. And they’ll become even more unhappy & discontent when I tell them that I’m not approving them for their consolidation loan because they can’t afford it.

    And the cycle continues…

  3. It is a hard thing to beat. My FIL consistently calls Hubby “cheap” for not upgrading everything in the house every couple (or every) year.
    They are in their 60’s with multiple mortgages, but it allows them to maintain a certain “lifestyle”. Which hubby and I find horribly pretentious.

  4. Your post made me think of Agent Smith’s (Hugo Weaving) monologue in The Matrix, when he told of the first matrix that was set up to be perfect and peaceful, all the humans rebelled. It’s not in human nature to be satisfied or at peace. If everything around us is right and going well, we look for cracks in the foundations, we look for ways to mess it up.

    We grow and learn when our worlds are in disarray. If we as humans are perfectly content, we are essentially in stasis. While content individuals still may work and contribute to society, they might not be adding to its growth and improvement. I guess the folks that feel threatened by this might see a breakdown in progress, and not see contentment as a choice.

    There’s got to be a middle ground in there somewhere.

  5. Funny, this morning on the radio, they were saying that over the past year or so there have been a million more prescriptions written for happy pills in Quebec. People also, it seems, need to be happy all the time. Or is it just that there are millions of people who are chronically depressed and actually NEED these drugs?

    I can’t help but think that this discontent plays into it somehow. You’re not happy cause you aren’t content, you want to be happy, you take pills… but if you’re never unhappy, how can you be happy?

    Am I making any sense here?

  6. It’s just rampant consumerism fueled by what people see on TV, in the moves, magazines, etc. and unrestrained by responsibility.

    When I was first starting to buy things that had to be financed, it was difficult to get a loan or a credit card and the loan limits were low.

    It was the norm for us to live within our means.

    I’m dissatisfied with some things about our home, but we’ve lived here for 28 years, it’s paid for and we’re working on the things we don’t like.

    Part of the reason I was able retire at the age of 55 was that we didn’t follow the buy-buy-buy bigger and better homes and toys herd.

    We did it the old fashioned way.

  7. “What has changed however, I think, is the societal pressure to not be satisfied with any part of yourself, your work, your home, your finances, and your relationships – to always be looking for a fix, a change, for something new and better and bigger.”

    I agree. Society and the media have made people spoiled. But it is disgraceful that this attitude persists in this age of environmental crises and waste.

  8. P.S. I don’t think I could be a complete “freegan”, but I applaud their efforts at reducing the amount of stuff that ends up in landfills.

  9. Becky – Yes, there do seem to be a lot of angry people about. Is the anger fueled by discontent?

    Ken – I would not be happy owing money anywhere to anyone. I wouldn’t be able to sleep. It would always be there hanging over my head.

    Beth – I know how you feel. There is a lot of stuff a lot of people feel I should have or should want to have, but I don’t. Once in a while I think there might be something wrong with me for not wanting this stuff, but mostly I just don’t care.

    Nylonthread – It’s not often that everything is going perfectly, but you’re right, when that happens it’s scary…like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I hope I don’t sabotage myself though, or look for things to go wrong.

    Jazz – Oh ya, drugs are the answer to almost all your problems! I accompanied my daughter on a 3-day camp a few years back with her school class. The first thing the teachers did when we all arrived was to collect meds from all the kids, so they could be doled out correctly by the adults. 75% of the kids there had little bags of pills with them. I was floored. And a lot of these pills were anti-anxiety or anti-depression drugs. We’re talking 11 and 12 year olds.

    Mike – I still live like that. I can’t even bring myself to take out a mortgage. I can’t imagine going into debt to buy anything, even though I have one of the most secure jobs around, I only spend what I have and stash a little of that away regularly for rainy days and future university tuitions — because I don’t want my daughter to start life with a debt either.

    Hannah – I was looking at the CHEO lottery house photos on the weekend, thinking “who the hell would live in a place like this?” 4000 square feet. A home theatre with a 60-foot movie screen. A hot tub out on the deck with a double-sided fireplace next to it?? A $1.4 million home.

  10. Hell yeah, blame Oprah. Now that we’ve found someone to blame let’s not do anything about this turn of events.

  11. There has been alot of discussion about this very topic. It’s interesting that’s for sure.

    Steve Paikin (TVO) just hosted a program called ‘Modern Women Woes’ that focused on this very topic.


    Something that was said is that we are expected to do everything and do it well. Have a beautiful home, smart well rounded children, look great, have an amazing marriage, be a good cook, be a good friend, have a successful career, be involved in our community. Impossible to do everything and do it all well. Our standards are way too high, the bar is set way too high…who can ever achieve everything????

    Another interesting thing that was said is that our grandmothers didn’t spend time thinking about whether or not they were happy, people didn’t go around discussing whether or not they were happy. I wonder if this makes us all question whether or not we are in fact happy!

    We all seem to say how busy we are, it’s like we must be busy or there is something wrong with us. We like to complain that we have too much to do, that we never have enough time…I’m guilty of it too.

  12. I think you should blame Oprah.
    I’ll then tell her and in an effort to piss you off she’ll give all your friends and family, but not you, new cars.
    Then you’ll be discontented but everyone around you will be content. For the first month anyway.
    Never underestimate the ability of “O” to cause or abolish contentment.

  13. I think it started way before Oprah.

    I believe it started with television itself. Before that, you lived in your neighborhoods (mine being semi-rural), you went to school with others in your own socio-economic class, you did not see the guy with the lambroghini, or the 60″ tv, or even know what designer clothing was.

    Then, you start getting sit-com tv and the women all want heels and pearls like “Leave it to Beavers” mother had and you’re looking around at your home with it’s hand me down furniture and mismatched dishes and wondering, why you can’t have stuff like that.

    Commercials only made it worse, but sit-com is the origins.

  14. Dr. Monkey – Thanks! I was just waiting for the official Monkey endorsement.

    Betsy – I try never to be busy. I hate being busy. Being busy makes me feel like I’m missing out on actual life.

    Bandobras – The Oprah comment wasn’t entirely facetious. I’m referring to all this public navel gazing we do. We’ve identified so many syndromes and “issues” on shows like Oprah — things people never thought of before they officially became syndromes and issues. Yes, there are some things that needed some light shone on them – child abuse, et al, but a lot of the stuff that gets talked about on these shows is like rubbing sulphuric acid in a tiny scratch and getting it all festery and gross. And who could be happy with something like that on their arm?

    Sheryl – See my response to Bandobras. Even before TV people had movies and magazines that tried to convince them to improve themselves and their lives. However, I think there has been a huge explosion in general discontent in the past 20-30 years because of all the focus on being slim, having giant lips, never aging, owning the biggest and best house and car, etc… This is coming from all over the media and the internet, not just TV, I think. And it’s become self-perpetuating.

  15. We’re the richest, healthiest, most well-fed society in the history of the planet. You’d THINK we’d be happy.

    But we aren’t.

    Dunno why. But we just aren’t.

    Look at the explosion of self-help books in the bookstores. Not to mention the plague of self-help blogs, e-books, inspirational quotes and list of tips designed to make you a better person…yadda, yadda yadda.

    What about “Life Coaches”? Just a few years ago, I never even heard of the term.

    Now they are swarms of them all over the place. Seems like every 3rd person and their dog is some kind of “expert” on how to improve my life.

    I dunno. It seems we’re not satifisifed, and we’re on some kind of quest to “find” something that will make it all better.

    But (the million dollar question is): find WHAT?

  16. I’m quite content. There is little I want for, few things I would change (well, I’d like to drop a few pounds – but not for appearance reasons… for my health), little I envy of others. Three healthy kids, a solid marriage, a dream job, a nice house and fairly good health.
    What more could I want?
    Yeah, I make little changes… upgrading this and that, buying this and that. And, yeah, I have a mortgage, credit cards, etc. But even that doesn’t bother me because my wife and I have are at income levels where we can manage these debts fairly well.
    Blame Oprah? Sure. But blame the whole celebrity culture thing while you’re at it. TV shows, magazines and every other symbol of modern culture holds up those examples of killer ab diets, huge homes, expensive cars and all the trappings of the Hollywood life (style).
    Maybe it is as Nylonthread notes above when referencing the Matrix: “It’s not in human nature to be satisfied or at peace”. And maybe the celebrity culture “industry” is on to this and is profiting greatly.

  17. we get caught up in this from time to time, and it is usually a result of boredom (right now i am sooooo sick of my couch, and desperately want a new one, but the current one is perfectly good, so i can’t justify getting rid of it). i can’t say i won’t give into my urge for a new couch, but i will find someone who really needs a good quality couch and give it to them.
    i’m very visual, unfortunately, that requires buying eye candy from time to time 🙂

  18. You can always blame Oprah. I blame her all time. It makes me feel good.

    Missed bus? Damn you Oprah!

    Burnt your tongue on your lunch? You win this time, Oprah!

    Stayed up late and you’re tired? Never again, Oprah. Never again…

  19. Friar – Like a lot of things, I think this has been a big marketing ploy. It’s amazing how much we have absorbed into our lives and psyches because some PR firm told us to. One example – the whole concept we have of women with leg or underarm hair being gross all stemmed from a huge marketing campaign by Gillette back in the old days. The self-help thing, I think started with the Wayne Dwyers back in the 1980s. Did we have all this shit before then? Not that I recall.

    Trashee – I think the celebs are as much a victim of this (or more) as we are. It would be interesting to trace back what started all this general discontent. It hasn’t been that long, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out.

    Meanie – A sofa here and there doesn’t make you a general malcontent, I don’t think. We’re talking people who aren’t satisfied with anything. No matter what they get or achieve they are always looking for more, better, bigger.

    Erigami – You joke, but I think Oprah can be blamed for a lot of this. Her and the other gurus out there who keep telling us all the stuff that’s wrong with us and what we need to do to fix ourselves.

  20. This is what happens when a society moves from believing that the things of the spirit are meaningless and that the material things of the world are the only things that give true meaning to life.

  21. Oh crap, I’m happy. I must have screwed up somewhere. Where was I when they were handing out all this discontent? I’m mad I didn’t get any. All I got was this stupid good life/family/friends/job.

    Damn you, Oprah.

  22. I am very content and I have found that it annoys people. I don’t neccessarily strive for anything, but I live to learn and travel, gather experiences and help people. The old “be happy with your lot in life” most likely came from old Europe with all its social classes. If you were not born a blue blood, you couldn’t become one and so to be happy you had to accept your place. The concept in the U.S. has always been “You can be anything you want to be” and I guess a lot of people didn’t end up being what they wanted to be and therefore are discontent. I’m a happy little camper here at my house. I wish everyone could be as happy as I am, I truly do.

  23. Cedar – You have a point. People seem to have no inner life anymore – it’s all external. No time for contemplation, spirituality, learning and growing as a person. Just a lot of facade.

    Alison – So, you’re discontented with your contentment? Oprah has a lot to answer for, that’s for sure.

    Alias – And the quick fix disease.

    Geewits – That comes across very clearly in your blog – that you’re very content with your life. And it sounds like you’ve always been that way. Your childhood and youth stories are charming and whatever glitches came your way seem to have been dealt with from a position of basic overall contentment with yourself. I could be wrong, but that’s how it comes across.

  24. STOP blaming Oprah for everything!

    Maybe part of it is our ability to be easily distracted. We have so many things that demand our attention (tv, internet, even the number of varieties of soup available), we find it hard to stay within the realms of reasonable expectations…(according to our brains capacity to keep up). We have too much to choose from.

  25. LoLa – I’m only using the mighty O as a symbol of all that’s evil and self-indulgent in the world today. And why is there all this stuff? We made all this stuff. We apparantly demanded all this stuff. Supply and demand? It didn’t fall out of the sky after all.

    Friar – It all started with Phil Donahue. Geraldo did his best to annihilate the daytime talk show forever, but it resurged stronger than ever when Big O took over the airwaves and magazine waves and every other wave. Also she owns all the other daytime talk show hosts, doesn’t she?

  26. I’ve recently scaled back an awful lot and, looking back on where I was before this effort, I really feel sorry for that person feeling so empty and discontent … using money and things as some kind of equivalent to happiness.

    I guess the only place I feel discontent these days is my vocation … hence all the grad school talk lately. That’s sort of different, isn’t it?

  27. I’ll have to think on this some more, but I at least wanted to say I’m enjoying the post & discussion.

    I’m just trying to both be aware of how much I have, concretely and abstractly, and wean myself off of complaining so damn much. It’s a habitual to mutter, habitual to want more or “different” more. I like to blame it on planned obsolescence a la The Story of Stuff. We have societal forces conditioning us to want more and new and the latest. Feels like an uphill battle to push back against that. And it’s not popular to point it out, either.

  28. Quack – Yes, like I said, I think we all need goals and need to feel like we’re moving forward, growing, developing, improving. I think that’s different than what the author of that piece is saying. I guess it’s a difference between being discontented with superficial/cosmetic/material things and being discontented with more substantial stuff like your education, etc.

    Marie – Exactly. I often feel like I have to explain and/or apologize for not having the range of “stuff” most people have. The assumption is always that I’m too poor to have this stuff rather than I just can’t be bothered wanting it. It’s not easy to explain.

  29. My brother and I got into an online argument about freeganism, which led me to write the following…


    A friend read it and pointed me in this direction.

    My take: the whole concept of identity seems to have gotten broken.

    The TV says, “Buy, buy, buy! Make yourself better!”

    The rebel says, “I will not buy! I am entirely content with what I have and who I am. In fact, I’m going to get rid of some stuff, and be happy living small.”

    Stasis as rebellion.

    At the risk of sounding like a self-improvement guru, there’s a dream in me, and I want to make it real. And I suspect everyone has their own dream in them and wants it to be real. Their own secret want.

    TV says, “This is what you should want!”

    The rebel says, “I don’t want that!”

    And the tough question is, “Well, then what DO you want?”

    “Not much!” is not much of an answer.

    A better world, maybe? A better life for yourself, for your neighbours? Solar energy? Better art? Better music? Better homeless shelters? Better streets? Better shops? Better relationships? A better understanding of who you are?

    All of these are viable choices. And that’s where personal dreams come into play. The real want, inside. The secret dream each person has. True, beautiful desire. Find out what yours is, and chase that. Don’t listen to your TV — listen to you.

    Find out what you really want.

  30. Nik – Very well put. The difficult thing is trying to figure out if what you are striving for is really what YOU want or something you have been programmed to want. How do you formulate your actual dreams/desires anyway? From input from your family, friends, society? You’re influenced by what you read and hear and see every day. Advertising/PR/propoganda is so insidious and so subtle, it’s difficult to sort out sometimes. My favourite example is the fact that the large majority of our society believes that armpit and leg hair on women is gross (these days apparantly pubic hair as well). How did we come to believe this to the extent that people are physically repelled by it? Gillette started an ad campaign back in the 1940s to convince women that they’d look more womanly with no armpit hair (and to sell razors to the other half of the population). It snowballed from there. I find this mind-boggling.