Contentment, Happiness, and Living in the Moment

Business Man At Starting Line Road PathI was on the phone with my friend Phil Hodges the other day talking about contentment. Phil believes that contentment can only happen in the present, and I think he is right. Contentment doesn’t happen in the past by remembering the good old days.  Having nice memories is pleasant but doesn’t necessarily offer contentment in the present. Also, contentment is not in the future because we don’t know what that will bring.

Real contentment, enjoyment, satisfaction, and happiness happen when we are fully present and living in the now. If you have a positive feeling that you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to be doing, then you experience true happiness.

Spencer Johnson, my coauthor of The One Minute Manager, also discusses this in his brilliant parable The Precious Present. In this story, an older man’s wisdom launches a young boy on a lifelong search for the precious present. Eventually the young man discovers what the old man was trying to teach him all along: what you have and what you do in the present is a gift. Living in the past can be destructive or demotivating and can hinder your journey to happiness. Likewise, planning for the future is good but it is impossible to live there. And if you focus only on the future, you miss opportunities right in front of you.

Living in the present allows you to focus on the important and to cherish the moment. I encourage you to consider moments when you were at your best. I’ll bet you’ll recall that you were right there in the moment, fully committed and fully present. If you dwell on what was—the past—or what will be—the future—you’ll miss the power of contentment, happiness, and success in the present.


With spring around the corner, I find my mind turning to golf. I love to play golf. I’ve always tried to not take it too seriously and remember that it’s just a game—but I didn’t really love to play until I started to use an approach called NATO golf. In case you haven’t heard of it before, NATO stands for Not Attached To Outcome.

BallWhen you’re attached to outcome, you might be having a good game but then you hit the ball wrong and find yourself focusing on the wrong things—every move you make, every breeze, every bump in the grass. It really tightens you up and you can’t perform as well. You become fearful of your results because you believe that who you are depends on how you score or play that day.

I can’t tell you how much more fun it is to play NATO golf than to grind my teeth over the score. It doesn’t mean I’m not interested in hitting good shots or scoring well—but I know that I am not my score. I am not each shot. As a result, I’m much more relaxed and able to swing freely at the ball without fear. I play so much better when I’m not worried about whether I’m going to be able to hit that hole or make that putt. I just get up there and let it happen. It’s beautiful.

Golf is always interesting to me, because I believe golf is a lot like life. Think about it. Sometimes you’re playing better than you should, so you learn how to deal with success.  Sometimes you’re playing worse than you should, so you learn how to deal with failure.  Sometimes you get good breaks you don’t deserve and sometimes you get good breaks you do deserve.  Sometimes you get bad breaks you don’t deserve and sometimes you get bad breaks you do deserve.  All in four and a half hours!  Ha! And one of the best ways to get to know somebody is to play golf with them and watch how they behave. It says a lot about a person.

In life, as in golf, sometimes we get so focused on outcome that we don’t enjoy the ride.  We’re so uptight about the importance of the outcome that we miss the dance of life, the dance of relationships, the dance of the sales call, or the dance of doing a seminar.

Mark Twain said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” I can’t say that I agree. Golf is a wonderful game as long as you don’t start believing that who you are is dependent on how you score. Don’t get attached to outcome—just be who you are and you will be amazed at how much more you’ll enjoy the game of golf—and the game of life.

Take Care of Each Other During the Holidays

This coming week is the week people can really get stressed out if they work on it.  We’re rapidly approaching the heart of the holiday season. Hanukkah begins on December 21st and runs through the 28th, Christmas is coming up next Sunday the 25th, and then Kwanzaa begins on the 26th.  It can be a busy and stressful time, with all of the celebrations, traveling and gift-giving attached to the holidays.  We all need to keep a sense of humor and laugh and enjoy this time of year. Don’t knock somebody down trying to get into a parking space.  Remember, this is the time to feel the spirit of love and appreciation and thankfulness.  Keep things in perspective as you go along—even if you don’t get all of the shopping done that you expected to.  It’s a special and meaningful time. Reach out and give somebody a hug and tell them that you love them—that’s probably the most important gift.  

I came across a wonderful quote by Henri Nouwen.  He was a Catholic Priest from Canada who spent much of his life ministering to the less fortunate and he has written some great things over the years.  Just listen to this as a way to think of this holiday season:

“More and more the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, sit up on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them.  It is a privilege to have time to practice the simple ministry of presence.  Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, and to be a part of some impressive project is so strong, that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans; not to organize people around an urgent cause; not to feel that you are working directly with social progress—but I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and to tell your own.  To let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them but you really love them.” 

Isn’t that wonderful?  I think that we get busy with work, busy with shopping, and aren’t practicing the whole wonderful ministry of presence—simply being present with people we care about.  So today and throughout the holidays, consider the idea of just being present with each other.  Maybe what you ought to be doing first is to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own.  Let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, you truly love them. I think that’s what the holiday season is all about. Take care.

Defining Your Work/Life Balance, Part 2

In last week’s blog, I started telling you about an effective model you can use to achieve balance so you can enjoy your life more and resist stress.  The acronym for the PACT model stands for Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone. Adopting this model and putting it into practice on a daily basis is a fabulous way to keep your stress level in check and keep your work and life in balance—the ultimate goal being a happier and more peaceful day-to-day existence. Who wouldn’t want that?

We started last week with P: Perspective.  Keeping good and bad experiences in perspective can contribute greatly to a feeling of well-being and help your stress level remain low.

A: Autonomy

The next element that contributes to peak periods of happiness and high stress resistance is autonomy.  Autonomy is a feeling of having control over your own life. People with a high sense of autonomy usually have a clear sense of their own identity, feel the freedom to make choices in their lives, have career or job options and sufficient skills, and see their daily activities as moving them toward their long- and short-range goals.  If we ask individuals a single question—Are you in control of your life?—and they answer “no,” we know that those individuals are at a much higher risk for illness.

The lack of power and control felt by those who are underprivileged, really struggling to make ends meet, in a situation where there is racial or sexual discrimination occurring, or simply stretched to their limits in terms of workload, is the very opposite of autonomy and control.  People who feel powerless are under the most stress and are often the most angry.  These people often have the most severe health problems of any group in our society.

On the other hand, people who are good time managers, who feel that they are managing their daily lives well and have the skills to do it, are the ones who are likely to feel the most control and the most autonomy.  In their stories of peak periods of happiness, these people often referred to two or three weeks or a month when they were in a special place and they could decide what it was that they were going to do each day.  Others referred to a job they had or a project they were working on where they could choose the direction in which they were going and felt in control of the situation.

Clearly, most people can’t go through life on a vacation or in complete control of everything—but certainly a young mother with two toddlers running around and no money for a babysitter has a different degree of autonomy than a young mother whose youngest child has just entered the first grade. The latter may have six open hours for deciding how to spend her time. Is she going to play tennis or sleep until 10:00 a.m., take a class to further a career goal, or start a part-time job? What is her choice for today?

One of the most powerful ways to build control and choice in your life is through the development of key skills—skills like knowing how to manage others effectively, being a good parent, managing your time well, or helping people feel like they are doing their jobs well.  Again, people often have different degrees of autonomy at home and at work.  Some people do very well at the office—they set goals, hold committee meetings, participate in performance reviews, and they progress well.  At home, however, they never have time to exercise, break appointments with themselves and other family members for scheduled “quality time,” or they might have half-finished projects around the house they have been putting off for years.

C: Connectedness

The third ingredient in stress resistance and high life satisfaction is connectedness.  Connectedness relates to the quality of relationships in peoples’ lives.  People who report high connectedness often feel they have positive relationships with friends, family, self, coworkers and supervisors.  Connectedness also relates to a feeling of contentment and resonance with one’s physical environment.  You can have a highly connected experience watching a beautiful sunset or walking into a home that you’ve decorated because it feels good to you. In fact, there are good reasons for people, when they first move into a home or a new community, to spend time decorating that new environment so that they feel more connected to it. You can have a highly connected experience having a cup of coffee with a friend or sitting in bed at night cuddled up to a loved one.

My definition of low connectedness is when you do not feel you are an integral part of your environment.  For example, if you move to a new community and go away for the weekend, then return and find that nobody knows that you were gone and came back, it can be an indicator that you are not very connected to your neighborhood.  In fact, after a move most people feel totally disconnected and many people report a great deal of illness during the year following a major relocation.

In their stories of peak periods of happiness, people often referred back to a time when they were first married and didn’t have much money and so did more things at home, such as played a lot of bridge because that was all they could afford to do. Often, however, their friendships were solid and meaningful.  Men often referred back to fraternity days in college or to a high school group of friends when connections were strong and non-competitive.

All types of relationships you have affect your connectedness, but the most important relationships are those with your spouse and your boss. In fact, the number one predictor of health at the worksite is your relationship with your boss.  A bad relationship with a supervisor can make people sick.  A good relationship can enhance a feeling of overall well-being and productivity.  On the home front, are you spending quality time with your spouse?  Do you make special efforts to plan “memory-building” times together?  In general, have you spent the time that you need to nourish the most important relationships in your life?

T: Tone

The fourth element in the PACT model is tone. This important concept includes how you feel about yourself physically. This includes the way you look, your health and energy level, your sense of fitness, even the way you are dressed and the colors you are wearing.  People with high tone generally have high energy levels, maintain a proper weight, have sound nutrition and feel really good about their physical appearance.  In their stories of peak periods of happiness men very often thought back to high school or college when they were in the best shape they had ever been in—easily able to bench press 300 pounds or run several miles.  Women often talked about the time when they were 10 pounds lighter and could fit into all the clothes in their closet.  Generally both men and women talked about a time when they were active, looked good, had an abundance of energy, and paid attention to their physical health.

Over the years I’ve found that when everything else seems to be floundering and I feel my balance is slipping away, often the quickest and easiest ingredient to impact is tone.  Tone is often easiest because it lends itself better to measurement and you can see concrete results more quickly.

Balancing the Elements

What has been helpful to me about this model is that the elements of perspective, autonomy, connectedness, and tone can be a dynamic balance for one another.  As an example, what do we do in our society when someone becomes ill or injured and is hospitalized?  By definition, their physical health (tone) is low now. So what do we do? Customarily we send this person a card.  What might the card say?  We care about you (connectedness).  This won’t last forever (perspective).  Soon you’ll be up and about (tone) doing what you want to do (autonomy). We may even send flowers to help him or her connect better to a sterile hospital room.

Why I like the PACT is it helps.  It’s like a good diet.  It will work even better for you as you personalize it and make it yours.  I have used this model for many years now to keep my own life in balance and monitor the times when balance isn’t present.  If I notice I’m not looking forward to a given day or time, or I feel my energy is lagging, I try to step back and ask myself:  What’s feeling out of balance?  Am I so over-committed or over-stressed that I’m doing what everyone else wants me to do today without any time for myself?  Or am I upset about a relationship with someone close to me?  Or does my house feel untidy with lots of undone tasks and thus doesn’t provide a nourishing harbor from the stormy world?  Or have I lost track of what all my efforts are for?  Or am I confused about why I’m working 12 hours today and worked 12 hours yesterday and don’t have time to see the people I love?

The PACT model has helped me, and it can help you, identify what’s wrong when you’re feeling out of balance and pay more attention to life when you are feeling great. When your life is in balance, stress naturally loses its grip and you are able to enjoy life on a higher level.

Defining Your Work/Life Balance, Part 1

Even though most of us know about the need to have balance in our lives, the journey from knowing it to actually doing it isn’t easy. Looking at our lives with the help of a model we can use and reuse can be a great way to keep stress at bay and help us achieve the work/life balance we need.

The model I’m referring to was drawn from a study about peak periods of happiness in people’s lives, as well as various studies of the effect of stress upon health.  Researchers were looking for common elements that explained the phenomena of stress survival or optimal well being. They hoped that such identification could lead to prevention of strain caused by excess stress and a model for improving well being.

Peak Periods of Happiness

            In this study, people were asked to describe a three-week or longer “peak period of happiness” in their lives—a time when they felt that life was truly worth living.  Ask yourself:  When was the happiest period of time in my life?  When did I feel that life was the most fun, the most meaningful, the most alive?  Where was I?  What was I doing?  Who was I with?  A researcher named Herbert Shepard asked people these questions.  As he collected several hundred interviews, he began to notice that there were common elements in the lives of people as they remembered and described these wonderful periods of time.

The Impact of Stress

The other studies are about the impact of stress in a person’s life.  After studying people who had experienced a number of stressful events over the course of a 12-month period of time, researchers found that 80 percent of such highly stressed individuals developed a physical illness within the next 12 months.  The conclusion was that illnesses such as diabetes, ulcers, cancer, and heart disease quite often follow a very stressful period of time in a person’s life.

The other side of this research is interesting as well. Researchers asked:  Why did the other 20 percent of those highly stressed individuals not get sick?  What is happening in their lives that is enabling them to remain stress-resistant, or “psychologically hardy”?  Interviews with these stress-resistant people revealed that they had some important common ingredients in their lives.  Such “stress survivors” survived 12 months of frequent and/or intense stress-inducing life events without becoming seriously ill during, or one year following, the onslaught of high stress.

As luck would have it, not only were the researchers able to identify the elements related to both peak periods of happiness and stress survival, but the two sets of elements were also found to be fundamentally similar to one another.  When I studied this research , the similarity of the results of the two investigations confirmed the my feeling that a simple model for life balance and satisfaction would enable many of us to better manage the day-to-day options and demands of a busy life.

The PACT Model

For convenience, I’ll be referring to four elements—Perspective, Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone—as the PACT model of life balance and satisfaction.  The remainder of this article will explain these four key concepts and suggest how to achieve a balance among these elements.

P:  Perspective

The first element that can create both happiness and stress resistance in your life is perspective.  Perspective can be defined as the “big picture” of life.  People with good perspective know their purpose and direction in life and value their past experiences while still having a keen sense of the present moment.  Perspective is that broad picture of where you’ve been and where you’re going that sets the context for this moment and for today.

An example of perspective for me has always been Viktor Frankl.  Frankl was a World War II concentration camp survivor who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning.  When Frankl was first imprisoned, his captors burned the only copy of a prized manuscript he had written, right in front of him.  As a result, his main purpose in life became to live through that horrible experience and rewrite his manuscript.  It turned into an obsession.  While in this camp, he observed that, in this most degrading of all human situations, some people managed to keep going and survive, but others seemed to lose their will to continue—one day they would refuse to get out of bed in the morning and two weeks later they would be dead.  Frankl’s observation was that the people who were able to keep going month after month and year after year were the ones who had a purpose in their lives they could hang on to—a great love they wanted to return to, work they felt compelled to finish, a strong spiritual direction, or even a strong desire to get through each day and help others through the dreadful experience.

For each of us, perspective can translate into goals we want to achieve, values we want our lives to reflect, or a sense of living each day as if it might be our last. It’s helpful to think about perspective at home and perspective at work. Some of us have a very good idea of our work goals—our professional direction in life—but our personal life needs some thinking about.  For others it’s just the opposite—we do well at home, but our career goals are uncertain.  For many people, the challenge is keeping a balance between work and home that is comfortable and at the same time allows them to obtain goals in both worlds.

Any time there’s a big change in our lives, our perspective is liable to drop.  Certainly a person going through a divorce, a person who has just been fired, or someone who has to make a major change in his or her life for any reason may be going through a period of low perspective. Most people, however, ultimately find that this period of low perspective becomes an opportunity for growth in their lives, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable or familiar.

Next week:  Part 2 – Autonomy, Connectedness, and Tone