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more noble character. They feel far more jealous at the superior wealth of a rich neighbour, than at the superior virtue of a good neighbour. Circumstances often displease them, but their own conduct never. They are discontented where they ought to be contented; they are contented where they ought to be discontented. They are dissatisfied with Providence, but perfectly pleased with themselves.
Let us look to-day at true and false discontent in regard to personal circumstances.
And here we must distinguish between circumstances which are unalterable, and circumstances which are capable of being modified and changed. In matters of the first kind all discontent is bad and foolish. It not only does no good, but it does actual harm; it positively increases the evil at which we grumble. The more we think and speak about the weather, e.g., the more detestable it appears—at least in England, where weather generally means bad weather; while if we had been thinking and speaking of something else we should probably have forgotten all about our atmospheric surroundings.
"Things without remedy should be without regard."
No doubt discontent may be in some degree constitutional, a matter of physique, proceeding rather from a diseased state of nerves than from the mind or heart. But even in these cases there is a good deal that we may accomplish for ourselves by voluntary effort. The mind may exert almost as great an influence upon the body as the body exerts upon the mind. A temperament which is naturally inclined to melancholy may by voluntary effort be considerably modified, if not indeed made altogether sanguine. We should persistently cultivate the habit—unless we have it by nature—of forcing ourselves to dwell on the agreeable side of things rather than on the disagreeable, of forcing ourselves to think rather of the pleasures which we have than of those which we have not. There is so much pleasantness in life which the most of us lose through want of thought. It is pleasant to exist, to breathe, to move, to talk, to think, to read. But a pleasure must be attended to in order to be felt. And therefore it often happens that pleasures, of which we are actually in possession and which we might be enjoying, are practically lost to us because our attention is all fixed on other pleasures, of which we are not in possession and of which therefore we can only feel the absence. We are like the dog who dropped the real piece of meat, in order to seize upon its shadow which seemed larger.
Happiness often lies so close to our feet that we overlook it; we discover its existence only when it has vanished and cannot be recalled. There is scarcely a faculty more worthy of being cultivated, and there is no faculty so much neglected by most of us, as the faculty for enjoyment, the faculty for perceiving and making the most of the pleasures which are actually ours. If I were the chancellor of a university, I think I should do my best to secure the founding of a new chair, a chair of Life. I don't mean the science of life—biology—there are plenty of chairs for that; but I mean the art of life, the theory of living well, of living the best possible life, of making the very most of our existence physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. I daresay, if the thing was to be done properly, we should require several chairs and several professors. But they would all, I am sure, insist upon the importance of cultivating the faculty of enjoyment. It may be cultivated. It is cultivated, as a rule, in the highest degree amongst the really wise. The cleverest men and women generally find the greatest pleasure in little things. Indeed, to my mind, this is one of the tests of greatness.
"Endow the fool with sun and moon,
Being his, he holds them mean and low;
One thing that tends to make people discontented is, that they expect too much happiness, especially of an ecstatic and extraordinary kind. We take an exaggerated view of our right to happiness. We think we deserve it, we think we ought to have it, and that we are hardly dealt with if it is denied us. "The whim we have of happiness is somewhat thus. By certain valuations and averages of our own striking, we come upon some sort of average terrestrial lot; this we fancy belongs to us by nature and of indefeasible right. It is simple payment of our wages, of our deserts; requires neither thanks nor complaint; only such overplus as there may be do we account happiness; any deficit, again, is misery. Now consider that we make the valuation of our own deserts and ourselves, and what a fund of self-conceit there is in each of us, do you wonder that the balance should so often dip the wrong way, and many a blockhead cry, See, there, what a payment! was ever worthy gentleman so used? I tell thee, blockhead, it all comes of thy vanity, of what thou fanciest those same deserts of thine to be. Fancy that thou deservest to be hanged, as is most likely, thou wilt feel it happiness to be only shot; fancy that thou deservest to be hanged in a hair-halter, and it will be luxury to die in hemp. So true is it that the fraction of life can be increased in value, not so much by increasing your numerator as by lessening your denominator; nay, unless my algebra deceives me, unity itself divided by zero will give infinity. Make thy claim of wages a zero then, and thou hast the world under thy feet. Well did the wisest of our time write, it is only with renunciation that life, properly speaking, can be said to begin."
0. W. Holmes has less quaintly but very forcibly expressed the same truth. "When one of us, who has been led by native vanity or senseless flattery to think himself or herself possessed of talent, arrives at the full and final conclusion that he or she is really dull, it is one of the most tranquillising and blessed convictions that can enter a mortal's mind. All our failures, our shortcomings, our strange disappointments in the effect of our efforts, are lifted from our bruised shoulders, like Christian's pack, at the feet of that Omnipotence which has seen fit to deny us the pleasant gift of high intelligence, with which one look may overflow us in a wider sphere of being."
Another thing that tends to make us discontented is that we overestimate the importance of happiness. We hold an erroneous view as to the desirability of being always happy. Happiness is a good thing, a very good thing; and we should always—