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Happiness and Contentment: What Is The Difference?

The dictionary uses them interchangeably, but I think there is a difference.


a: a state of well-being and contentment: JOY

b: a pleasurable or satisfying experience 1



the state of being happy and satisfied : the state of being content 2


The definitions from the online Merriam Webster dictionary use happiness and contentment interchangeably, but I don’t believe that they are the same concept.

I would call myself content, but not happy. I'm content because I'm in a very different place than I was twenty, ten and even five years ago. I have two jobs (one as a social worker and one as a writer) and I am passionate about both of them. I have a small, but close circle of family and friends that care for me deeply, and I for them. I have both emotional and physical health.

The one ingredient that is missing from my life, the one thing that I believe would convert contentment to happiness is an emotionally and physically intimate committed relationship with a man. That is something which I have not yet experienced so I say that I believe this experience would tip my contentment towards happiness though I do not know for sure.

It’s possible that I am one of those souls who was meant to be alone, but not lonely, just as I knew in my early twenties that I was not meant to be a parent. Still I would like to have the experience just to know for sure if being in a relationship will or won’t transform my contentment into happiness.

I’m not saying I definitely want to get married; being past the age of childbearing, a piece of paper isn’t going to make much difference. And I’m not saying I want to live with him either; I love living alone right now but the right man may shift that mindset.

The important element is that I am remaining open to new experiences. I’m chatting online with a gentleman at the moment. If it works out, terrific. If it doesn’t, I will move on and ahead.

When I ask my patients what they want out of therapy, they often say they want to be happy. When I ask them what happiness looks like for them, they have difficulty defining it. They have been suffering for so long and living unhappily for such an extended period of time that they can’t remember the last time they were happy.

When I probe and prod, the last time they were truly happy is often a childhood memory, a carefree time, when they had little to worry about. It's true that some of my patients had less than carefree childhoods, but most can remember at least a couple of moments that made them smile — perhaps with a beloved aunt or uncle.

“We’ll work toward contentment,” I tell them. “Where you’re satisfied with the life you’ve built-to-date. And when you are healthy, we’ll go after happiness — your dreams, your goals. Think of it as building a foundation of contentment, just as a builder constructs a foundation for a house. Then he adds the first floor and a second floor ─ only after the foundation is stable.”

After my little speech most of my patients get the working-in-steps idea and they are not so anxious to rush straight to happiness. They understand the need to take it more slowly and build the foundation. I like to use one of my favorite analogies — that the process of therapy is similar to a dance — two, three steps forward, one step back, two steps forward. Anything but linear.

I’m getting edgy. Contentment no longer feels comfortable. Happiness is beckoning, but change can be daunting. I have to keep reminding myself about the dance of therapy — and the dance of life.

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