"If you're content, then you're saying you're okay with being mediocre. You're saying you're okay to settle.”
Someone said this to me recently and it appears to be a common viewpoint. Everyone is chasing happiness – as much of it as they can get their hands on – while contentment is considered an inferior state. But is this really the right approach?
The flaws of happiness
We all like to feel happy, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It’s an emotion that, as a society, we have chosen to seek above all else.
Some say, though, we’ve chosen incorrectly. Author Hugh Mackay said at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, “I actually attack the concept of happiness. I don’t mind people being happy – but the idea that everything we do is part of the pursuit of happiness seems to me a really dangerous idea and has led to a contemporary disease in Western society, which is fear of sadness.”
The trend towards pushing aside what we perceive as negative emotions in order to focus on the nicer feeling of happiness is, he says, schmaltzy and false: “Everyone says we grow through pain and then as soon as they experience pain they say 'Quick! Move on! Cheer up!'”
It’s not always realistic to simply cheer up and ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ in the pursuit of happiness. Rewind several years; I was at home with a baby and a depression that weighed down on me with increasing heaviness. The fog of this deep melancholy left me with no real emotion; I was numb.
After a lifetime of happiness-seeking, I was suddenly shrugging at some perfectly great things going on in my life and witnessing, without emotion, some terrible things happening. Nothing could filter through the black wall that I’d unwittingly constructed.
As it turns out, emotions are like money: it’s only when you’re short on them that you begin to appreciate their worth. And while we’d like to consider happiness the $100 note in emotional currency, the truth is that each emotion that fleetingly visits you during the course of any given day is worth an equal amount.
The pursuit of one feeling above all others is fruitless, like a dog chasing its own tail.
Don’t worry, be … content
Mackay continues his argument against happiness by pleading the case for embracing a more natural variety of emotions. “Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are,” he says.
Perhaps it’s in the aiming and acceptance of this ultimate wholeness that we can find a state that’s far more satisfying than happiness. Contentment, it seems, is a state so far beyond happiness that we rarely acknowledge we have access to it, let alone aim for it.
This is not the case in all cultures: many actively seek and value contentment. Studies have suggested that people in individualistic countries, like Australia and the USA, tend to pursue happiness, while those in collective culture-based nations such as Japan, India and Thailand highly value contentment.
One influence of this cultural difference can be religion; Buddhist practices urge contentment with who you are, rather than eternally chasing or craving more.
Another influence is in value systems; collective cultures place a greater emphasis on harmony within their relationships and contributing to the community, while focusing on oneself is the core of individualistic cultures.
Certainly, Western cultures are embracing collective concepts such as gratitude and mindfulness in the hope of reversing the effects of mental illness and physical ill health. It is also becoming more common to recognise the health benefits of volunteering to help others, which could encourage us towards a more collective mindset.
Still, we need to recognise contentment for what it is (fulfilment) and what it isn’t (complacency) before it can truly become our new pursuit.
Contentment is a state of satisfaction, both emotionally and mentally, but that doesn’t mean we’re not striving for more or left without ambition. In fact, the opposite is true: contentment offers the foundations from which to take risks, learn, grow and, importantly, feel the wholeness of all feelings.
My experiences have given me a new appreciation for every emotion. After some time of numbness, simply feeling things is like coming back to life, and to have those temporary states sitting under the umbrella of contentment is a blessing.
So, is contentment a matter of settling for mediocrity? No – and I’d even go so far as to suggest that happiness is the emotion that’s being settled for. But if you can take all your emotions, just feel them, and find some contentment in that, then maybe you’re lucky enough to have hit the sweet spot.