Happiness and contentment
Updated: Jun 8
Happiness and contentment
Are happiness and contentment the same, do they prove elusive, or may we elect to enjoy such states of being? Terry Martin, in another of his occasional essays, discusses the distinctions and their relevance for the process of growing old:
Dennis Prager, an American broadcaster and author, writes in his book, Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A human nature repair manual:
'We tend to think that we owe it to ourselves to be as happy as we can be. And this is true. But happiness is far more than a personal concern. It is also a moral obligation' (p. 3).1
The notion of happiness as a moral obligation may strike as odd, certainly counterintuitive. We tend to think of happiness as something largely beyond our control and as happening to us. However, Prager goes on to say:
'Happiness is largely, though certainly not entirely, determined by us—through hard work (most particularly by controlling our nature) and through attaining wisdom (i.e. developing attitudes that enable us not to despair). Everything worthwhile in life is attained through hard work. Happiness is not an exception' (p. 6).
In order to be happy, we have to believe that life has meaning, which he claims makes religion necessary.
People derive meaning from two beliefs – the belief that their life has meaning and the belief that life itself has meaning. Both beliefs – in personal meaning and in transcendent meaning – are necessary for happiness (p. 102).
Happiness therefore becomes a choice and firmly within our control and not contingent upon what happens to us in life.
'In all my studies of happiness, one of the most significant conclusions I have drawn is that there is little correlation between the circumstances of people’s lives and how happy they are' (p. 115).
In his online article, What If You Pursued Contentment Rather Than Happiness? Daniel Cordaro writes:
'Contentment – the knowledge that things are OK exactly as they are, right now – is highly valued by many cultures.'2
The knowledge that things are okay again seems counterintuitive. To make sense of it we need to shift our focus and attention from outward to inward. Codaro goes on to explain:
'Contentment, on the other hand, requires no external input and is sourced entirely from within. Instead of seeking external sources for happiness – which are always going to be out of our control – contentment offers an incredible power and stability… Contentment comes from our relationship to what is going on around us, rather than our reaction to it. It is the peaceful realisation that we are whole and complete just as we are, despite the anger, sadness, joy, frustration, and excitement that may come in and out from time to time.'
So convinced is he of the importance of contentment over happiness that he offers several practical suggestions for the cultivation of contentment, which he defines as:
'… the idea that right here, right now, everything is OK as it is. Yes, that means we can be content with our sadness, content with our anger, content with our shame. We can be content with our elation, joy, and peace – and everything in between. Contentment is the underlying acceptance of what it means to be human, an unconditional love for all of life’s experiences, without the need for anything more than what is here right now. Once we learn how to bring this into our lives on a regular basis, we can finally begin to understand what the ancients meant by the knowledge of enough, the acceptance of the present moment, and true happiness' (emphasis mine).
Codaro appeals to the ancients, but we could just as easily appeal to the apostle Paul who wrote to the Christians at Philippi:
'Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.'3
These considerations are relevant throughout life, but particularly in old age when we are prone to look back and reflect upon life with an inevitable mixture of regret and thankfulness.
1. Dennis Prager, Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A human nature repair manual (HarperCollins, 2009).
Terry Martin, is a trustee of Caraway - a charity based in Southampton, 'promoting the spiritual well-being of the older person.' 6 June 2021