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Contentment in an Age of Discontent

Dr. Chris and Alisa Grace pose for the cover of The Art of Relationships Podcast.

In a world that says you have to have it all, how should we respond? More importantly, how do we develop an attitude of contentment? In this podcast, Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff explain how to foster contentment and joy in an age of discontent.


Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another podcast. I'm Dr. Chris Grace, psychologist, and I'm here with communication expert Dr. Tim Muehlhoff.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, I like the sound of that Chris.

Chris Grace: So Tim, we have an opportunity to get together and do this on a regular basis, and it has just been fun because we get a chance to talk about some cool topics together and some things out there that listeners write all the time and ask us, "Hey, could you talk about this and that." What a fun chance to be able to visit and talk-

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we're thrilled that so many people have found this really beneficial and we're appreciative of every single listener and it's great. Your letters, your comments, has been really enjoyable and has led us to this topic. The topic of contentment and discontentment.

Chris Grace: Yeah boy, when you start talking about something like gratitude, something like how do you feel content there, almost like two sides of the same coin, or better yet, maybe opposite sides of the same coin. You start talking about, how do people begin to experience or feel content in a world that points them to things that they want, need, should have, and all of a sudden levels of discontentment rise and it has been a shock to some people, how hard it is to find contentment in an age that we live in.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, and you know, this idea for this podcast kind of originated from a commercial that I saw and you and I were talking about. It's a commercial for GMC trucks. I had to write it down, Noreen had to stop and start to write this thing down, because it just drove us crazy. Listen to this GMC truck commercial. "How do you want to live?" It begins. "As a decent person? A fine human being? A good husband? Good? Is that it? Of course not. Parent of the year, better, one of a kind, undeniable, like a boss, king of the hill, top of your game, all-powerful, win, we couldn't agree more, we are professional grade GMC trucks."

But Chris, think about that, right? Is it okay to be a decent person? Why are you shooting so low? Right? A good husband? No. Why not be a great husband? And the problem with that is, you just start to have discontentment, right? That Hey, it's not enough just to be a person who goes to work every day and checks in and out, it's not good enough to have a marriage that is good. Man, we're seeing, "Hey, you can be better, you can do this, you can be top of your line, all-powerful, winner," things like that and I think over time, that starts to breed discontentment. I live an ordinary life and that's not good enough anymore and that I think is how discontentment starts to take root in our lives.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Tim, I couldn't agree more, the shock of you hearing that commercial, the words, the ideas, the concepts that they try to get across to people, beginning to play a role and have played a role, from probably since advertisements have started to come out at the beginning of time that showed, boy you really need this, you really need to aim for that.

What about then Tim, let's spend some time over the next couple of podcasts, talking about what is contentment, what is discontentment, what is gratitude, and then from your communication background, use our familiar with the way these certain commercials or these concepts come in to play, and as psychologists, you and I both have landed and looked at some researchers and authors, a guy named Bob Emmons has written a great book-

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, he's great.

Chris Grace: ... on the science and the psychology of gratitude. So let's start talking about those over the next couple of things. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff: I think it's great. I think it's an important attitude.

Chris Grace: Let's start with this then, Tim. When you hear about, and listen to this commercial, what's the risks? Why is thinking about something like, "I want to be great at being a husband, I want to be a great spouse, I want more." Where is the risk in that? And what risk are we running when we start to tell people you need to aim higher and aim for more and not be satisfied until you get this. Keep your target high. There's nothing necessarily nothing wrong with aiming high. 

Tim Muehlhoff: No, that's good Chris. There's nothing wrong with wanting to improve in your marriage. There's nothing wrong with wanting to resolve conflict better, be a better listener, be less selfish in the marriage, but you just said, the way you phrased it Chris was good. But to reach this level. Okay, who determines that level? That's what I think the real issue is. We have this mantra of the American dream, which to me is symbolized by it's always bigger and better. You start off at the starter house. Well, of course, that implies that the next house is going to be bigger and bigger, you're going to be in a job and of course you're going to get promoted, it's upward mobility, it's climbing up the corporate ladder. It's not just having kids, but having extra-ordinary kids.

I mean Chris, we've all sat in these auditoriums and churches where people get up and say, "My child is a five-point-something and started a non-profit in sex trafficking," and we're like, "Good Lord, I'm just trying to get my child to find his other shoe to have matching shoes." But that kind of stuff, you listen to it enough it's like, okay, we're living a life that I can't point to anything extraordinary about it. We go to work each day, I think our kids are doing well, I think we're doing well, but man, I can't look at my marriage or family and say we're changing the world.

And by the way, we can talk about that later. That's another mantra I have. I think the talks that our kids hear upon graduation fosters discontentment right away. So again Chris, I like what Paul says, remember, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, "It's good to live a quiet life, work with your hands and to be honorable." So again, I want people to know that your marriage can be really good, but it's not something that Hollywood's going to write a movie about. And we need to be content knowing that I'm making a difference in my neighborhood, I'm making a difference with my kids, with friends, I'm not necessarily going to be this world changer. That's when I start to think we start to get discontented. 

Chris Grace: So then, what you are kind of reacting to in something like this, is when there is a standard that we set, something that either the world tells us-

Tim Muehlhoff: Right.

Chris Grace: ... is something to aim for or to shoot for, and what happens is there's going to clearly be a gap, a dissonance between what I have achieved, or what I can achieve, and what the world says. So, sometimes it seems Tim, that one of the things we run into is that people try and airbrush their world, and airbrush their lives, and their Facebook posts and their pictures to look more like this perceived target and this ideal image that in reality none of us really can meet up with or reach, and it's in that gap between the life I live, the children that can't find their shoes in the morning, and what I see what people are saying they're doing, at that point, my guess is most people feel this, kind of foreboding sense of, I'm either living not an accurate true life, or I've got to fake it to get there. 

Tim Muehlhoff: Right. Good, yep.

Chris Grace: That leads to a number of issues that, I mean, we would call this feeling a discontent and it's this anxiety, lack of peace, lack of maybe even an ability to clearly see and then recognize the good that we do bring, and is that where the problem, do you think lies then, is this kind of gap?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we don't measure up, so my kids have these cell phones Chris, you know what I'm talking about. Now I personally have made the decision, we've talked about this on technology that I don't have a smartphone, but my kids do. They have smartphones that are unbelievable, but every two years, they're told they can swap out and get a new one, so those two years, they're not appreciative of the cell phone that they have Chris, they're always looking at technological advances and ways that their cell phones are already outdated. 

That's what I'm worried about is, I'm being conditioned to be focused on what I don't have, rather than what I do have. And I think that's where contentment comes in, right? So I'm not focusing on my family, but I like what you said, the Facebook image of families, or even Hollywood versions of families where everything's working out at the end, these are unbelievable kids, unbelievable families, the sex is phenomenal, and after awhile, you're just like, "Oh my goodness, this is boring, what I have is boring." 

a good friend of mine, Tim [downs 00:08:59] used this analogy, I thought it was great. He said, "Go back to the 1700's, 1600's, you got a farmer who spends all day looking at the back side of a mule. Right? He's farming, that's all he does. He's working with manure, and he's looking at the backside of a mule. When he went home, his wife looked pretty good." That's what my friend says. Now, with advertising, even those places on the internet, you can go to where they do Photoshop of faces that are just stunning to see. Now, you pass by all these billboards, and you see models that every blemish has been removed, now you look at your spouse and you go, "Well, now I'm discontented."

Chris, and maybe you're planning on sharing this a little bit later, but could you go into this great study we came across that a man did with monkeys and different types of food that he would give. I think this is the point I'm trying to make, but this comes from your realm, psychology.

Chris Grace: No, it's an amazing that I think Tim leans into a good discussion on. What exactly does it mean for gratitude or even contentment, right? This researcher, Frans de Waal has-

Tim Muehlhoff: Love that name by the way.

Chris Grace: Yeah, Frans of France. You can actually find some of his work on gratitude and he works with monkeys, a particular kind of species of monkeys, that are really good at being trained to do a job, and they're very fast. 

For example, he's trained them to do a job, to do a chore, and what he has agreed with these monkeys, is when they complete their task, they receive a reward. In this case, the reward the thing that they want is cucumbers. They love it, it's a great little treat for them, so they work very well for this. He hands them this cucumber, and everything is great because that's the agreed upon, I guess, reward for completing the task. 

Then he does something very interesting. He puts another monkey who's also been trained in the same task, in the cage right next to them and so they're watching each other doing this task simultaneously or operating together on this project and all of a sudden, the researcher takes the second monkey and he gives them a opportunity to receive now, grapes.

So, monkeys, besides liking cucumbers, they really love grapes, all right? So, this is the most awesome video, I wish you guys can see it, you'll have to go and google it in and see what he does, but all of a sudden changes so that monkey number two receives a grape as a reward, monkey number one has saw this, was content before with receiving the cucumber, and now, he is expecting, "Wait a minute, he got a grape, my turn, I get the grape." Does the job, reaches out, and the researcher hands him a cucumber. 

Now this monkey is not a happy monkey, it's like, he is an angry, frustrated monkey, because you can almost see it in his behavior, in fact he takes that cucumber, looks at it and throws it right back, he'll literally throw it right back at the researcher going, "Wait a minute, I deserve, I want it, I get one of these grapes. What did you do?" And he'll shake the cage, watching monkey number two, continually get reinforced by given this grape, it now begins this whole cycle and it's a great ... I think he looks at these studies and finding all these sorts of ways in which a monkey looks at things like fairness, perceived contentment, or perceived gratitude in the way of how justice comes in, or what's true or what's fair. And it shows a very interesting situation.

Do we face that? Here's the question, as humans are there times in which I have made an agreement or understand or I have what is something I like? A cucumber comes to me and I enjoy it. Now my wife and I talk about this idea of, are we still satisfied, which that which we know is good and appropriate in a reaction?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, I think most of us live lives of cucumbers, but social media shows up grapes 24/7. Expensive cars. When Christmas season comes, I just chuckle Chris, because who gets a Lexus for ... you know what I mean? You open those curtains, and it's, "Honey you got me a brand new Lexus with a huge bow on it." Well, that is a grape. I'm looking at my, what ... leg warmer or whatever, and I'm thinking, man, that is not a Lexus. I don't care what you're telling me, this is not a Lexus.

So, I think we have to be guarded about that Chris, and again, I like what Paul says, "I want you to excel at loving others, living a quiet life and working with your hands," he says. No, that doesn't mean that you can't hope to get promoted in your job. It doesn't mean that it's wrong to want to eventually move into a house, maybe that's a little bit bigger or better, but as Christians, I do think we're called to a bit of a different standard when it comes to that kind of stuff. I think we need to learn to have gratitude in what God has given us, and His love, His contentment, and not always be looking at the American dream and this bigger and better attitude that many of us tend to live by.

Chris Grace: Now, I think that's right Tim. Talk to me a little bit about your understanding of this difference. There is a difference between gratitude and contentment. They seem to be similar and let me tease it out this way. Gratitude is something in which, if you looked up or you thought about gratitude, it's this notion of feeling, right, that ... It's like Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for, is another way. And there's some great passages that we can read about and understanding about what it means to be grateful.

Contentment is very similar, but it's almost as if you're grateful for things that you have, but you seem to be content with the things that you don't. In other words, grateful means, I have things that I've been given in life, relationships, where there's material goods, it's things that are ... and so, expressing gratitude for that. And then the idea of contentment seems to focus in on, I'm content with the things I also have, because there's a world of things that I don't out there.

To realize, oh, well finding contentment even though there are things that I might lack, according to commercials, according to things that I've seen, was where contentment comes in. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, let me give you an illustration of this. One time we spent Christmas with another family, and this family social economically was ahead of us, right? They had much more resources than we did. This is when the kids were young. We made this decision Friday night, Christmas eve, that we all could open a present, and so we did. Everybody was happy, it was so much fun watching my kids, their kids, with this one present and all of them loved it, right? 

Well guess what? Then the next morning came, Christmas morning, well we got to open more presents, but here's what happened Chris. This was fascinating. They literally, I'm not kidding, tripled the amount of presents they gave their kids, that we gave our kids. So, Christmas eve, everybody's content. "This is great, I love this toy, thank you for thinking of me, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." The next morning, we're still the same, we're doing another round of opening presents, well pretty soon, the Muehlhoff's are done. And I appreciate their sensitivity a little bit, because they backed off a little bit, but seriously, they went three more rounds than our kids. Now, our kids are looking at us going, "What's up with that?" 

That contentment was Friday night, was Christmas eve, this is good, I'm good, I don't need more than this, but when I see somebody else getting more than this, that's when I start to get discontented. So again, appreciating your lot in life, appreciating what you have, not always looking for something that you don't have.

Chris Grace: I love this quote, you probably don't know this author, I don't know who he is, but somebody named Timothy Miller, one time said this, "You can resent your bald spot, or you can be glad you have a head." And so I think for you, when I look at you, I know that's what you would say as well, right? There's so many ways, which you could say, "Gosh, I could resent this or be discontent with this," but I could also ... Now tell me about that, does it mean that a lot of this comes down to the way I think about things.

Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, I think so.

Chris Grace: I put on a new attitude that I can resent the fact that I have this messed up car, that barely gets me to work, or I can just simply be glad for the fact that I have something that gets me from point A to point B. Or I could resent the fact that I don't have a back up camera, I don't have surround sound, I don't have a blue tooth connection, I can't even use maps, or I can just be content with the fact that I can get to this place by driving a car. That's an interesting kind of, almost attitude approach. What do you think?

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, so here's my dad, right? This is back in Sterling Heights, Michigan, my dad did this. He gave me a car to drive and to be honest, this thing was a piece of garbage, it really was. It was huge, a gas guzzler, the muffler was as loud as anything, I didn't want to drive it right? So I said to my dad, I made a mistake of saying to my dad, "Dad, this car is like garbage." He said, "Oh, fine. Fine." He took the keys, he said, "There's a bike. Go bike." So, Chris, I spent that summer in August, in Detroit, the humidity is through the roof, and I am biking everywhere and guess what? That car started looking pretty good to me. 

Chris Grace: That's right.

Tim Muehlhoff: That's an interesting twist on this whole discontent thing is, "Hey, you don't like what you have, let me take it from you and here's the next level of what you're going to have to deal with." 

There's an old Jewish story that I read one time where a guy went to a rabbi, and he said, my house is so loud. And he lived by himself, he was an elderly man. He said, "It's just so loud, it just drives me absolutely crazy, and the rabbi said, "Okay well, do this, next week, I want you to take some chickens and put them inside the house, week after that, I want you to get a goat, put him inside the house, week after that ... " and added animal after animal after animal. Well, now this poor guy is ... "All these animals and loud noises," then the rabbi said, "Now get rid of all the animals." Got rid of them, loved his house. It was the quietest house in the world. 

I think that's fascinating Chris, that, boy, you don't like this, let me take it away from you, and then you'll start to appreciate and be content.

Chris Grace: Yeah. Maybe then the secret, maybe then or at least the goal is to figure out how do we do that with changing the way we now approach or see things. Changing the circumstances is sometimes hard for us, I can't all of a sudden if I'm struggling with, maybe listeners out there are dealing with lack of money or financial ruin, or they just struggle and they just think, "Gosh, everything would be so much better if I had a better job or if I had more pay," and maybe in reality, it doesn't work that way, that a lot of content people are finding that much of this happens by my heart or the way I approach this.

What Paul says In Philippians, right? I love that in Philippians 4:12 he says, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret to be content in any and every situation." I wonder what that secret is. Whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. What's the secret? And that secret is, okay, there is something more important in life, and I just need to focus in and think about that. What do you think?

What was Paul's secret would you say, when he said, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty, and I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation." It's going to have to be the way he see's the world. His worldview must come into play here.

Tim Muehlhoff: It's the reference point. This is a great way to end this podcast. Remember in the beginning you said, "Compared to this." This, is the key. What am I looking at to compare myself. Again, that's the monkey with the grape and the cucumber, that's the person who says, "I'm comparing the car I drive to the car that you drive." Having the right reference point, is really important. As American's, that's where I think social media and Hollywood give us this really difficult reference point, for a lot of us, we're just not going to get there. I mean, what it would take to get there is we just wouldn't want to do that. 

So, I like that. Paul's reference point, was not the things that were happening around him, but more his spiritual condition, his spiritual contentment, things like that. I think that's good. So we got to guard ourselves from getting too many reference points. Let's be a little protective of what we're allowing our kids to see and what we're looking at, because you can always take a look at what you don't have compared to what you have. 

Chris Grace: Now, that is a good way to end it Tim, because really what this means is there are just simply things that will constantly be in front of us that will desire, hope for, wish for, and want, those aren't bad things. It's not difficult to say, "Gosh, it's okay to desire, to seek," right? And sometimes it's going to be hard, you want to fight to get there. But there's also something pretty important about what we've been talking about. That ability to say, "Can I be content in all these things and what is it then that I'm really focusing here? Where's my direction? Where's my heart at in this?"

And that really starts to come in with some ways in which we see and think about, as you said, our spiritual condition, our ways in which we compare ourselves to other people. And I love the researchers in the field of happiness, who said, "Those who express and are more happy, are almost always comparing themselves to people who have less than they do or are less fortunate." And in fa

ct, one of the things they do, is it's this idea of contentment and gratitude by saying ... Happy people will tend to say, Lord, I am just so grateful what you provided for me, I know that it could be a lot worse. There's some people out there that have it worse and help me to see their plight, and help me to be part of their life, and help me to see the world now from someone who's been very blessed.

Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. I agree.

Chris Grace: Well, let's keep talking about this, because now I want to talk Tim, about some in the area in psychology, and also communication about gratitude, and some of the findings there. What do you think? Should we do another podcast on that?

Tim Muehlhoff: Man, I think this is well worth another podcast.

Chris Grace: Let's do it. All right, so hey, this process for us is talking about the podcast and relationships. Come see us and come to the, it's a great place, and so, you can find all kinds of events. Thanks for joining us on today's podcast, "The Art of Relationships," and if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on iTunes and your favorite podcast platform. Of course, we'd love it if you gave us five stars, but really just share this with somebody else on Facebook or Twitter, so.

Tim Muehlhoff: We'd be content with three stars.

Chris Grace: And grateful for more and less. Not really. Awesome. Okay, thanks.