in: Advice, Character, Sunday Firesides

• Last updated: June 1, 2021

Sunday Firesides: Contentment Through Contrast

A question that has been oft contemplated and discussed, is why it is that Scandinavian countries routinely report some of the highest happiness levels in the world, and especially, how these peoples manage to endure a particularly long, dark, and cold winter while remaining relatively cheerful.

Some say it’s because of the popularity of saunas in these countries. Others theorize it has to do with their embrace of “hygge” — or cultivated coziness.

Yet the resilience of Scandinavians is arguably not premised on these pleasurable practices themselves . . . but rather in the way they are often juxtaposed with “harder” elements: jumping into an icy lake before entering a sauna; sitting by the fireplace after an afternoon spent snowshoeing.

Life loses its savor when one consumes a steady, flat-lined diet of sameness. Contrast — which works in two directions — is key.

Effortful things are more doable, and even enjoyable, when punctuated with repose. 

Walking feels more satisfying after a stretch of being sedentary; parenting kids is more readily relished when you’re not around them 24/7; it’s not only more pleasurable to sit in a sauna after jumping into cold water, but easier to jump into cold water after sitting in a sauna. 

Conversely, the peaks of pleasure are higher when they form a relief against troughs of sterner stuff, and in our world of comfort and convenience, it’s the texture of the latter which our lives typically lack. Heightening our happiness thus requires cultivating “voluntary hardship” — purposefully peppering our lives with “bitterness,” to accentuate the sweet.

Food tastes better after fasting from it. Lying down to sleep feels more gratifying after a day spent standing up. Leisure only offers its fullest refreshment when interspersed with labor. 

Hunger is the best spice. 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. 

Contentment comes through contrast.

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