Many people sing about happiness: R.E.M. sang about Shiny Happy People. Bobby McFerrin told us Don’t Worry Be Happy. Mary J Blige advised us to Be Happy and Pharrell Williams covered it all in one simple word: Happy.
But no one ever sings about contentment do they?
Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as it’s not such a catchy word, is it? However, it could also be because the jury on contentment is split. Many see happiness and contentment as indistinguishable. Others see them as very different and even hold quite opposing views on which one is better for us. Some see happiness as a higher emotion and contentment as a steady but lesser state. Others see happiness as often unattainable or just fleeting, and contentment is the holy grail.
Happiness versus contentment
So, which is it? Are they one and the same thing? Is happiness better for us than contentment or is it the other way around? And is there anything wrong with being contented with what we have or are?
Let’s look at some definitions.
Happiness can be defined as good fortune or luck in life. The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or attainment of what is considered good. This tends to imply that happiness is dependent on attainment and is a state of being. Which means that all lottery winners would be happy, right? They’ve all the money they need to buy everything they consider to be good. Yet we know that isn’t the case. Many lottery winners say the trappings of success brought them unhappiness. Take Viv Nicholson who famously told the press she would spend, spend, spend, after her husband won the football pools in the 1960s. What followed was a string of broken marriages, alcoholism, estrangement from friends, mental ill health and debt.
Now when we consider the meaning of contentment, things take a different slant. It can be defined as having our desire bound by what we have; not being disturbed by the desire for anything more or anything different. In other words, we’re happy with our lot and don’t feel the need to have anything else. These definitions imply that happiness involves constant striving for success, whereas contentment means settling for what you have. One sounds like an ongoing mission, the other like a life without aspiration of any kind. Does either sound appealing? I suspect not.However I’d question if that’s what happiness and contentment really are?
In pursuit of happiness
In the 1990’s Professor Martin Seligman led the positive psychology movement, which placed happiness and positive thinking at the heart of psychology research and theory. This led many people to see happiness as a goal, as something to be chased, which chimes with the idea of attainment.
And yet…you can only really be happy when you realise that constantly searching for happiness is exactly what prevents you from achieving it.
I’ll repeat that, because it’s important to grasp the meaning.
You’ll only find happiness when you realise that constantly searching for it is exactly what prevents you from achieving it.
Viv Nicholson sought happiness in holidays, cars, boats and other luxury goods. Yet the thing she was searching for eluded her for the rest of her life. People might say she would have been better off if she had been content with what she had.
Let’s examine this a bit more.
There are many views on happiness, contentment and which of the two is better for us. Some regard happiness as a fleeting emotion, largely unattainable and therefore a dangerous path to pursue. Others regard it as a choice, a state of being and an important part of life.
In turn, some see contentment as a path to complacency, to living with the status quo and of settling for less than our potential. Others regard it as a state of equilibrium and fulfillment, which is not without ambition.
Considering all this together, is it more the case that our view of contentment and happiness lie in our state of mind and attitude to the world? If so, then it should be possible to experience both contentment and happiness.
Aristotle said that “Happiness is self-contentedness.”
Therefore, if you accept the premise that we choose whether to be happy or unhappy, it follows that we can also choose to be contented or discontented. Moreover, feelings of happiness and contentment are not mutually exclusive, they are actually both part of the rich tapestry of emotions that contribute to our overall emotional wellbeing.
Think of contentment this way: it is the beauty of being content with what you have and who you are, while recognising your contentment can grow with you as you grow personally. Our motivators for growth though are not discontentment, materialism, or comparison with others. Remember that comparison is the thief of joy.
Think of contentment as the foundation from which to pursue life. You need it there to hold everything in place and can continue to build on it as you journey through life, setting and meeting goals, taking risks, trying new things, growing and expanding your horizons and above all else, having fun! From this place of contentment, happiness can easily flourish.
Can you be content without being happy? Probably. Can you be happy without being content? Probably not. Here’s why.
The reason why some see contentment as lesser than happiness is because people can fall into a habit of accepting things as they are and sleepwalk through life, possibly because fear or self-doubt hold them back. They may reach a place of perceived contentment, yet deep down they’re unhappy; they’ve laid foundations they’re unlikely to build on.
Conversely, people can be pretty discontented with their life and this almost certainly leads to unhappiness.
What both these scenarios need is a mindset shift to thinking we can be content without being complacent, happy for more than fleeting moments and achieve personal growth. In fact the bulk of what determines happiness is the way that we think, the state it creates and behaviour it produces.
Nine tips to gain happiness and contentment combined
- Take time to appreciate everything you have in life. This brings a focus on what you do have rather than what you don’t.
- Show gratitude and kindness to people around you every day.
- Find your purpose. If you do something you love, it encourages feelings of happiness
- Take pleasure in simple things in life. A walk with friends can bring you equal joy and contentment as an expensive night out.
- Accept people for who they are. Focus on the things you like about them and accept their ‘faults’ as part of the person you like / love.
- Spend time with other happy and contented people.
- Develop an optimistic outlook and cultivate the habit of seeing the positive side of things.
- Celebrate your successes (write them down) and savour special moments (anchor them).
- Learn to live in the moment as opposed worrying or thinking about the future. Instead of saying “I’ll be happy when….” decide to be happy now.
NLP encompasses a huge number of techniques that can transform your mindset, building a rock solid foundation of contentment to support lifelong happiness. For information on upcoming Practitioner training see the training page or get in contact.