The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

The price of contentment? £2.47 by my reckoning.

I’ve done some pretty incredible things in my life; swimming with dolphins, standing at the top of Sigariya, drinking martini’s mid-Atlantic on a transatlantic crossing, flying into the Grand Canyon for breakfast, visiting cities from San Francisco to Colombo. I’ve eaten in some of the finest restaurants and stayed in some of the finest hotels in the world. Many of the things I have done would appear on people’s wish-lists of things to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to do all of these things, but I’ve also paid an absolute fortune to do them. So why is it that the happiest, most content, and greatest feeling of wellbeing that I have ever had cost £2.47 per person and took place in my back garden?

A few weeks ago the weather was nice, so I went out and bought some burgers, baps, cheese slices, chutney (other relishes are available, but I’m going to give Geeta’s Tomato & Onion Chutney the credit it deserves here!), and four bottles of beer for a total cost of £9.88. I invited some neighbours over, cooked up the burgers, and we sat in the back garden eating them with a beer each.

The setting was perfect – a nice sunny day, hot but not too hot, no traffic, no-one mowing their lawn, just peaceful tranquility, with the occasional bird hopping around in the garden. The burger was the tastiest I had ever had (even if I say so myself!), the beer was an accompaniment to the food rather than a device for a physiological change of state. We all sat, ate, drank, and no-one said a word; we just basked in the contentment of the moment.

Looking back though, there was far more to it. I’d had an incredibly hectic week at work and, whilst I have them quite often, these are usually followed by free time spent thinking about the things I am working on or planning the things to be done in the future. On this day, though, my mind was free of all of the clutter that is usually there; I was free to just relax. And I think that played a huge part in it – the satisfaction of a job well done before the moment, and a little free time with my thoughts (and beer and burger) before the next round of work started.

That’s why multi-millionaires, people of leisure, and the unemployed aren’t wandering around with huge grins on their faces every minute of the day – happiness and contentment isn’t about money, it isn’t about time. It is often about being able to say to yourself ‘that was a good day/week’ and then having some time to yourself, even if just for a few minutes. It isn’t about ‘perfection’ – I’m a lecturer and a researcher, if something doesn’t go wrong at least once every couple of days then that is abnormal! But being able to look back and think ‘I did the best I could that week’ is important.

I can’t even come close to describing the feeling of that day. I can’t write out a formulae for how to put all of those items together to get that feeling for anyone else to follow; I probably can’t even put it together for myself. It is sunny and quiet today, the same as last time. I’ve got the ingredients for the burgers and some beers in the fridge, and the same people are within calling distance. But it has only been an ‘alright’ week at work. Will that make the beer taste slightly less sweet? Will it turn out that it actually isn’t that great to sit there with only my thoughts for company? Will those thoughts be as good?

Maybe it is best that I just keep the memory of that day instead of diminishing it by trying to replicate it.

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