What is Contentment?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Contentment and Balance

contentment
When we say we are happy, I think that everyone understands what we mean. After all, we’ve all experienced happiness at some point in our lives. So if someone says they are happy, we instinctively know that something “good” has happened to that person. We might even ask about that “good thing” that has happened.

Depending upon the intensity or degree of good that has happened, that happy individual might describe their self as feeling ecstatic or joyful. They may even say things like they are over the moon. In any case, we know that these words boil down to the fact that that individual is happy because something “good” has happened.

Of course, the opposite of happiness is sadness. Something “bad” happens and we feel sad. Again, like happiness, there are a wide variety of intensities and flavors of sad from angry that suggests that the “bad thing” is someone’s fault or depression which directs the fault inwards. Descriptions such as defeated and broken could also be used to imply a sense of wounding by the “bad” experience.

Notice that in both cases, happiness and sadness are dependent upon something happening. If the experience is judged as good, the emotional response is positive (happiness, joy, etc). If the situation is deemed negative, then the reaction is a negative emotion (sadness, anger, etc).

Moreover, since these emotions are reactions based upon certain situations, they are temporary. We’ve all had that experience where we were high on happiness and thought it would never end. Maybe we were in love or perhaps we were particularly proud of an accomplishment. In any case, our heart was light and everything seemed right with the world.

Then, something came out of nowhere to wreak our mood. Maybe someone said something that hurt our feelings or perhaps we hit an unexpected roadblock on a project we had worked very hard on. We might even have been given bad news about our health or lost a loved one. The thing is that no matter how hard we tried, after that point, we just couldn’t quite get that happy feeling back.

Although a little easier to sustain, sadness (and other so called negative emotions) have the same temporary nature. Most of us have had an experience where we were feeling bad and someone cheered us up either through listening and letting us vent or by just being playful and silly. Alternatively, maybe we cried, worked through the emotions, or found a solution to our dilemma. In any case, after a while the world didn’t look so dark anymore. The moment had passed.

Now, we get to contentment. Unlike happiness (or its emotional opposite sadness), contentment is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. Perhaps most importantly, it is not situation based.

Often, people tend to erroneously place contentment in that “good feeling” category. Some people even use contentment as a synonym for happiness. “When I held my baby for the first time, I felt contented”. “When I’m in his arms, I feel safe and content”. In this way, they are describing a feeling of peace, serenity, and rightness with the world.

Others tend to use contentment in terms of a lesser form of happiness or even the lack of a clearly positive or negative feeling. In this sense, contentment means they resign themselves to accept some particular situation or circumstance. Essentially, they are making the best of a bad situation or deciding that what they have is the best they can do.

When I speak of contentment, I am not using the word in either context. Contentment has nothing to do with giving up or accepting unhealthy circumstances. In fact, giving up and denying your own truth is one sure way never to experience true contentment.

That feeling of rightness that is associated with love is a much closer approximation to the contentment that I’m talking about. It is that feeling of completeness. It is a knowing that no matter what else is happening in our lives that everything is going to be just fine.

Love and contentment definitely do go hand in hand but whenever we look outside ourselves for validation our experiences become conditional. We hold our baby in our arms and feel complete. We can even bring up that moment and recall that feeling. Yet, when that same child tells us they hate us many years later, it stings nonetheless. The love obviously doesn’t disappear but that feeling of rightness sure does.

The same thing happens with a lover. Their arms might be our refuge from the world. Yet, at some point, the relationship will inevitably become complicated by day to day life. The love might still be there but the realities of life often mute that magic we felt in the beginning.

What’s more, since these love experiences depend upon the interactions and reactions of others, we have no control over their outcome. We can’t make someone else love us or feel loved by us. We can’t make someone see us (or themselves) in a particular way. We can’t even stop a relationship from changing, growing in a different direction, or even ending. Relationships, like life itself flow and ebb.

So, obviously, pinning our contentment solely on the love of others is problematic. Loving others is extremely important and a much needed part of life but expecting others to feed us a constant stream of contentment is rather unreasonable. It’s also quite unhealthy and a sure way to kill any relationship.

A more reasonable (and sustainable) answer comes from loving ourselves. From understanding who we are as individuals and what we really want from life. Most of all, from believing in ourselves enough to see our way through life’s challenges, knowing that we’ll survive (and eventually thrive) come what may.

Ultimately, these are the things that create and sustain true contentment. These aspects are the solid foundation that will allow us to fully enjoy those “good experiences” (without worrying that they will end) while providing prospective during more difficult times.  For it is often in these challenging periods, that we gain the most insight into what will make life worth living and the kind of legacy we want for our life.

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Tami Brady

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