The key to contentment, no matter what


by Ken Gonyer

Comparing ourselves to others can be a sure route to dissatisfaction. ©Thinkstock

A few summers ago, our family stayed for several days at the posh and elegant Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on the National Harbor near Washington, DC. We were guests there because it was the location of that year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which our son was a contestant. The place dazzled us. The resort has 2000 luxurious rooms, a 19-story glass atrium overlooking the Potomac River, a junior-Olympic indoor pool and lush indoor gardens. The atrium even has a “performing” water fountain that synchronizes lights, music and 50-foot jets of water to create a memorable show each night.

As thrilled as our family was to be there, I felt uncomfortable and out of place as soon as we arrived. As we pulled our old minivan under the vast, arched concrete canopy at the hotel’s entrance, I realized that every other vehicle in sight was shiny, new and expensive. Suddenly, I didn’t want the smartly dressed valets, bellhops and doormen to approach my dusty and slightly-dented family van. I was so intent on avoiding them that I dropped off the family, drove out to a satellite parking lot and carried our bags across the property myself. I looked like a pack mule.

Karen didn’t understand my actions, and I couldn’t explain myself right away. It took me a few minutes to figure out what had made me feel so unwelcome. It certainly wasn’t the hotel staff or the other Spelling Bee attendees. They were warm and friendly. What made me flee the hotel entry was a feeling of shame that washed over me as I compared my vehicle to everyone else’s.

Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying that “comparison is the thief of joy.” That saying held true for me at the Gaylord. For years, we’d happily driven older cars with higher mileage, preferring to wear vehicles out rather than have a car payment. I’d felt good about my financial choices and had no qualms about what I drove. On that day at the National Harbor, however, my contentment disappeared. In comparison to the other Spelling Bee families, we looked like impoverished bumpkins.

I thought of this situation recently when a friend wanted to tour the new house we have under construction. We’ve had fun stopping in every few days to watch the building progress, but I felt a sense of dread as I awaited our friend’s visit. Our visitor had built a very nice home not long before, and I feared what he would say when he saw our future home. In comparison to his place, ours will be small and simple, with few extra amenities.

Once again, comparison was the thief of joy and the enemy of contentment. I’d been excited about our house until I compared it with his! As I realized what I was feeling, I also recognized the impulse that was rising up within me: to spend more money on stuff that would impress people.

I could think of several other times I’d felt that impulse. On a recent visit to the Congressional offices in Washington, D.C., I’d worn business attire that was clean, neat, pressed and coordinated. I was feeling fine about myself until I looked around at the others walking the halls with me. In comparison to the lobbyists, legislators and aides, I felt almost sloppy. No doubt about it—I needed to buy a new suit!

What’s behind the intense desire to spend money on something we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t even know? It’s insidious, irrational and very, very powerful. And it all seems to begin with comparing ourselves with others.

A family friend with many children told me that his kids used to be happy at Christmas to get one carefully selected book, one high-quality toy and one nice item of clothing. With their big family, that arrangement was the best way to stretch their gift budget. Unfortunately, the contentment faded after they compared notes with other children in the neighborhood. The words of one neighbor boy were particularly discouraging. “Man,” he said, “you’re Christmas stunk, didn’t it? You should see what I got this year…” It was a stark comparison that left our friend’s kids feeling embarrassed. The gifts that they’d found so pleasing no longer felt like “enough.”

I can only think of one antidote to the poison that often sickens our hearts when we compare ourselves and our situations with that of others, and that’s gratitude. To avoid the depressing emptiness of feeling “less than,” we can stop and think about all that we have and are. There is so much for which we can be thankful—from health and relationships to food and a warm place to sleep. Gratitude leads to contentment. I agree with Christian speaker and teacher Joyce Meyer, who says that “there is no happier person than a truly thankful, content person.”

By the way—about that friend who visited our half-built house…my fears were unfounded. Every comment he shared was a compliment, to which we replied with a hearty “thank you!” I was grateful for his encouragement and felt even more content with the place we’ll soon call home.

No matter what our circumstances, we’ll be more content and experience more joy if we stop comparing ourselves and our stuff with other people and their stuff. Instead, we’ll try to cultivate a grateful attitude that keeps our family’s focus on the blessings we enjoy.

From our family to yours—have a happy, joyful, thankful and contented new year!

Ken Gonyer is Director of Member Care at Park View Federal Credit Union ( in Harrisonburg, Va. KAREN GONYER is a real estate agent with KlineMay Realty in Harrisonburg, Va. Email questions to [email protected]


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