Earlier in the year, I commented on the tale of “The Fisherman and His Wife,” which illustrates the danger of never being happy with what you have. Today, I’ll comment on Tolstoy’s short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?,” which also underscores a similar danger. (This theme of contentment seems to be a recurring motif in many of the stories I’ve read recently.) In the story, we meet Pahom, a peasant who just wants a little land for himself.
Unlike the tale of “The Fisherman and His Wife”, Pahom isn’t itching with outlandish desires. He doesn’t want to be king or emperor or pope. He just wants a little land so he can be self-sufficient. And then just a little more so he isn’t so cramped. And throughout the story, Pahom eventually acquires what he wants.
Inevitably, though, he finds himself discontent, needing just a little more. He slowly acquires more, and eventually amasses quite a bit. But in the end, he pays the ultimate price for his relentless desire for more. As the story concludes, the narrator also provides his perspective on how much land a person really needs.
The challenge of being content is something that many of us face. There’s always something more that we’d like—and sometimes for good reason. Each new acquisition may really make life a little easier. It may actually make us happy for a while. But soon we get used to the new. And what we once thought would be plenty slowly becomes not enough.
The problem lies not in getting something nicer or newer, but rather in letting that acquisition control your peace and happiness. If you find you just can’t be happy until you acquire the next thing—whatever it may be—watch out. Because if you’re unable to be content with what you currently have, what makes you think you’ll stay content with whatever’s next? In time, there will always be something else that is newer, nicer, or better out there.
Plus, there’s always the possibility of it breaking or getting stolen. And who knows when a natural disaster or some other calamity might destroy it. Basing your happiness on something that could easily be gone tomorrow–both literally and figuratively—is setting yourself up for disappointment and discontent. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t find enjoyment in material goods—you can and you should—but making them foundational to your overall well-being is a different story.
Now, imagine what your life would be like if you were able to truly be content regardless of what you did or did not have, where your joy in life was no longer dependent on what you did or did not possess, where having a little or having a lot had no impact on your state of mind. Learning to be content doesn’t mean you never upgrade. But it does mean your happiness in life isn’t dependent on doing so.