To be content or to be happy?

To be content or to be happy—which do you aspire to? Could there even be a (*gasp*) cultural difference?

Way back when I was in high school in the US, our class was discussing life aspirations. I said my ideal was to "be content".

My classmate's reaction: "That sounds so sad, like you're settling for just being OK."

Her perspective was that one should aim to be 'happy'.

It may be that my memories are being written over and this has become a private 'urban legend,' but in today's happiness-obsessed (Western?) world, this exchange still makes me wonder—are we talking about the same thing but just using different words? Maybe it's just semantics...but it's not quite so, at least not for me.

Happiness vs contentment

Happiness implies to me an active, euphoric sort of emotion. That uplifting feeling when you see someone you love, gather your child in your arms and feel them hug back, eat something delicious, sink into a comfy couch with a wonderful book, win a hard-earned reward....

It's a really good feeling. Of course I love feeling happy!

But what I meant by 'content' was not an inferior state of happiness.

Contentment to me means a state of not grasping. A state of being able to appreciate what I have, to be fulfilled with what I have. A state where my needs are met and my wants are not dictating my life satisfaction.

Happiness to me implies movement. It's fleeting, it's flux.

Contentment is stillness, a whole circle that wants nothing, a state of being.

And personally, I think the English-speaking world (can't say for others) confuses the two.

To seek to be always (or nearly always) happy is to seek to hang on to something that by its nature comes and goes. Such a quest is bound to frustrate.

Materialistic happiness

It strikes me that the present-day search for happiness is materialistic.

It's like we are being driven to always strive for more happiness, more success, more this that and the other thing. And we're bombarded by ads that promise happiness with more exercise, more yoga, more meditation, less meat, etc. etc.—not that there's anything wrong with exercise and healthier diets!

What I'm trying to say is that all these advertisements seem to tell us that we are just a click away from buying 'happiness'. And as with anything that requires 'more' of anything, it's reaching and grasping and never satisfied.

Take a step back.

There must be a less commercial way of finding a good state of being—getting into the habit of practicing gratitude is one that I like (although my gratitude journal lasted about three days :p Guess I could do better...!).

(As an aside: I do like the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness—but that is relevant in the context of finding a different means of measuring national well-being than just economic, i.e., money, measures.)

Of course, the flip side to finding satisfaction in life-as-it-currently-is is that sometimes unhappiness and dissatisfaction might be necessary to bring about change to insufferable conditions. The French Revolution, Gandhi and Indian independence, the civil rights movement in the US...if everyone were stoically content with their lot, then none of these (what I'd like to think of as) advances would have been possible.

So is it OK to be content with how things are?

I'm sometimes not sure.

And yet, how much more peaceful and fulfilling a life at the personal level if we can be content...

Buddhist roots...?

Buddhism says that life is suffering and we will find peace and enlightenment only when we accept that truth while simultaneously seeing suffering's transient and empty nature.

I'm not much of a Buddhist, but I do feel an affinity to this kind of stoicism, the admonition against grasping. And I tend to attribute my vision of the stillness of contentment to Buddhism.

...But then after starting this post, I read a lovely post by my Irish friend and she wrote pretty much the same thing I just did about happiness vs contentment.

So I guess I'd better just stop here and not make anymore sweeping attempts to link happiness and materialism to culture :D

EDITED 28 Feb 2019: Ha! A friend shared this, how timely: What Kind of Happiness Do People Value the Most? (Harvard Business Review, 19 Nov 2018) Although it uses the word 'happiness', the concepts described seem to be aligned to my idea of 'happiness' vs 'contentment' :)


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