Happy or Just Content?

Maybe it's not happiness you're really after.

Would You Rather Be Happy or Content?

Two words that connote a world of difference

The knife's edge "moment of change"
Small decisions help one negotiate life. The big ones are about moments of change when life suddenly alters and takes a new direction. If you have thought in advance about what matters most, then you will be able to recognize happiness when it stares you in the face. Otherwise, not.

This is the circumstance for most people.

Let me tell you how I learned the difference between happiness and contentment. If you are typical then the distinction does not sound like much. Indeed people use both terms to indicate a general state of success and felicity. But words have the power to change us, and there is a world of difference between the two.

“Contentment” is the word that changed me. When I speak of “moments of change,” I mean those knife–edge situations in which one crosses over from the familiar to a new state of being, moments from which there can be no turning back. Some moments of change are physical—one’s first menstruation or first orgasm are classic examples, and profound examples they are—but the majority of thresholds are psychological, moments of alteration when perspective suddenly shifts. A new point of view sweeps away the familiar way of looking at things. Once seen with fresh eyes, a new perspective cannot be undone.

The groundwork for my moment of change began with another story, a book I read thirty years ago that was written by a 73 year–old widow, Erma J. Fisk. The Peacocks of Baboquivari tells how this woman had volunteered to spend a winter season all alone counting migratory birds on a remote mountaintop in Arizona. For decades she’d been happily married, but never had she been independent. Her dependence on men was partly a factor of her generation (she’d been born in 1908) and partly the result of circumstance. First, her father had “taken care of everything” and made decisions for her. Then, the devoted husband whom she had married young handled all the couple’s affairs.

The husband had been her rock. With his untimely death she’d been cleaved—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—leaving her bereft in profoundly fundamental ways. Yet here she was now, alone on the sparse granite bluff of Baboquivari peak, her winter shelter a 15–by–20 foot cabin with no telephone or electricity. The winter turned out to be the coldest on record, and the access road to her cabin washed away. Few of us would find themselves especially happy in similar circumstances.

And yet the book, which reads like a journal of her time on the mountain, contains not one note of fear or self–pity. It is a story of one woman overcoming loneliness, of moving from lamentation to discovering, in ornithology, an activity that gave life meaning again. At the beginning she writes, “I passionately wished each night for years that I might wake up dead in the morning.” Then, by the end of her saga there is this: “I have listened to too many women in second marriages envy me my independence. There are worse things than loneliness. Widows haven’t many options, not at my age. Contentment is not the same as happiness, but it is a very solid state” (my emphasis).

It was this last sentence that struck me as remarkable. Why it stood out I cannot exactly say. The author was a careful writer. Her voice was precise, her vocabulary rich and engaged. Why did she pointedly contrast happiness and contentment, and moreover imply that the latter was a lesser state of being? That was how I read her words.

I reached for my Oxford English Dictionary, the micro edition whose two heavy volumes come with a magnifying glass. Leafing through its pages here is what I found:

HAPPINESS  Good fortune or luck in life or in a particular affair; success; prosperity. The state of pleasurable content of mind, which results from success or the attainment of what is considered good.

So far, nothing unexpected in the Oxford description, although it impressed me that most people, if they had clothes, food, and a roof over their head, were happy by definition. The dictionary seemed to be saying that happiness was largely the passive result of attainment: One acquired goods or status, and the acquisitions in turn bestowed happiness. Thought about this way, as the “attainment of what is considered good,” I was surprised at how little one needed to strive or do in order to count as happy.

Happy or content?

Personally I had more than enough creature comforts and nothing to complain about. I was dictionary–happy. But why, then, did I feel let down nonetheless, that something was missing despite the evident happiness that the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary said I had? The answer came in the other definition:

CONTENTMENT  Having one’s desire bound by what one has (though that may be less than one could have wished); not disturbed by the desire of anything more, or of anything different; satisfied so as not to repine.

With a thud I set the book down, scarcely able to imagine that exalted state: a life so sufficient and fulfilled that desire would not disturb me. If only. I had to laugh because back when I was young I was plagued by desire, beset by dissatisfaction in work, in relationships, in every aspect of my life. Restless, irritated, and discontent, I found nothing okay the way it was and desired just about everything to be different—until I meditated hard on what conditions would make me happy, and found contentment right in front of me.

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Happy or Just Content?