I think of contentment as the stepsister of happiness. If happiness is the swan, contentment is the ugly duckling.
Everyone is pursuing happiness. Happiness gets all the press. “The pursuit of happiness” even makes it into the Declaration of Independence.
By comparison, contentment gets short shrift. If happiness is the peak experience, contentment is the on-going background of life. Happiness or joy may be the mountain top, contentment is the base camp. If happiness and joy are the notes in the symphony of life, contentment is the space between the notes. Without the space between that allows us to appreciate and savor the notes, you just have a boring tone. It is the space that defines the notes and gives them their meaning. So, too, it is with happiness and contentment.
Contentment can be defined as being satisfied with what one is or has, enjoying quietness of mind in one’s present condition, the state of being satisfied or quietly happy. Contentment is not the absence of ambition or the lack of vision of a better or greater future, rather the wisdom, discipline, and maturity to approach both desire and longing at a pace measured enough to retain one’s peace of mind.
I’ve long been a big fan of contentment. Too often I have seen people speed by contentment in a relentless pursuit of unending happiness, not recognizing the wonderful treasure they overlooked.
Movies and television give us the condensed highlights of the lives of the rich, successful, and famous. We so quickly leap to the conclusion that that’s all there is, that our lives should somehow be an endless stream of highlights with no down or recuperating moments. We know that is silly but sometimes there is that unconscious expectation which, unchecked or unexamined, can lead to unnecessary discontent or restlessness, which in turn can motivate downright stupid behavior and idiotic decisions.
So, a big plug for contentment. All that’s required is an attitude of gratitude for the many blessings in your life and cultivating a deep and growing appreciation for all the good that has come your way. Think you don’t have much to be grateful for? The other day I saw a picture of a tent city of refugees in a third-world country, long lines to get just a few cups of water and a bowl of grain. Overwhelmed with appreciation and gratefulness does not even begin to cover it.
I close with some wonderful wisdom from Samuel Johnson*: “The fountain of contentment must spring up in the mind, and they who have so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but their own disposition, will waste their lives in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief they propose to remove.”
* Essayist, poet, biographer, lexicographer, and critic of English Literature; 1709–1784.
This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive, originally posted August 1, 2008.