While counseling a friend (we’ll call her Kaylee) through a struggle over deep discontentment with the lack of feedback on a project she’d put years of effort into, I felt the urge to ask a very specific question.

“Kaylee, what would truly make you happy in this scenario?” I asked. “What do you want out of this?”

“For people to like my project,” she replied.

“Well, you have five people who regularly tell you they do!”

“I know. But that’s not enough.”

Another friend piped in and asked, “What would realistically be enough to make you happy, then?”

There was no answer to that question. The silence itself struck a chord in me and opened the doors to a revelation I’m continuing to wrestle with: she didn’t answer because there is no answer. Because if you can’t be content with what you have now, you will not truly be content with anything—even if you have everything.

It Will Never be Enough

The 2017 movie musical “The Greatest Showman” tackles a man’s journey from squalor to splendor and the revelation that no matter how high he climbs, no matter what accolades he receives, he continues to feel empty. He goes from pursuing common favor to chasing the elites of New York society, then the applause of the nation at large…but in the end, hollowness and loss force him to come face-to-face with the fact that he had everything he truly needed from the start: a loving family he’d neglected in pursuit of the world’s admiration.

I love this journey. I love it because it brought me face-to-face with the truth that if we aren’t thankful for what we have, we will never fill the hole in our hearts.

This is not to say that everyone is in ideal circumstances always, but I would like to suggest that we can find things to be thankful for even in less-than-ideal places. Even if it’s just the breath in your lungs and the clothes on your back and the opportunity to try again tomorrow, that can be enough.

“The Thing” Won’t Make Life Perfect

People often think that if they “just had” something—the perfect job, the perfect relationship, the perfect house—THEN they would be happy. Then they would feel fulfilled. If they had a certain amount of followers on social media, sold a certain number of books, if they became head pastor of a church, if they found Mr. or Mrs. Right, contentment would be achieved. At last, that gnawing ache within them would quiet. They could finally rest.

They think this until they have those things, and the hole’s somehow still not filled. Suddenly they’re left wondering if they had a nicer car, a corner office, kids, pets, an even nicer house…

You get the picture.

Here’s the thing: contentment and true joy are not found in achieving success. They’re found in spite of success or failure. They’re found in being thankful for what you have right here and now, not in what you could have someday. If your happiness hinges on an outcome, it’s not really happiness, it’s a pinging pleasure synapse firing across the lobe of your brain; and once it fizzles out, discontentment will flood back in. You will want the next big thing to make you happy. And the next. And the next. You can actually wire your brain to constantly chase after the Next Big Thing, running toward a horizon that’s always moving away from you.

How Do You Achieve True Contentment?

Slow down. Stop. Look around you.

You can find contentment in what you have right now. The key to filling up that hole in your heart is to be thankful right where you’re at. That doesn’t mean you can’t have ambitions, but it’s recognizing that those ambitions are not your purpose.

 Give thanks for what’s already there. It’s not bad to have goals, but it is bad to hang your entire outlook on them. It’s unwise to pin contentment to the notion of a certain outcome rather than learning to live in gratefulness with what God has already given you. It’s healthy to find contentment and peace in every step of life, because you never know how long you’ll be standing there before the next one.

Shift your perspective. Give your eyes a rest from that horizon and bring the closer things into focus. Tally up the things you’re thankful for right here and now. It’s amazing how much contentment can be found right where we are.