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Understanding Contentment Over the Life Cycle

Contentment changes from a selfish mastery to a selfless interest in humanity.

Key points

  • You are unlikely to remain in a constant state of contentment. Life does not work that way since you then must move on to another task.
  • Contentment depends on perceived self-worth at the moment.
  • As we age, the contentment state shifts from internal to external, and more abstract, less self-centered, like playing with grandchildren.
 Madeleine au Bois d'Amour by Émile Bernard. Sharon Molerus Creative Commons License Public Domain Pictures
Contentment is a temporary state based on your perceived successful completion of a task, then you move on. But as you age, contentment becomes increasingly externalized.
Source: Calm. Contented. Shake the Muse. Painting: Madeleine au Bois d'Amour by Émile Bernard. Sharon Molerus Creative Commons License Public Domain Pictures

To fully understand contentment, you must realize its definition and basis and how it shifts focus over the life cycle from personal deeds to humanitarian ideals.

The Oxford dictionary defines contentment as "a state of happiness and satisfaction." What is missing from this definition is its temporal dimensions and fluidity.

Remaining at ease after success is difficult, given life's vicissitudes.
Age matters. Younger people tend to experience contentment after accomplishment and ending, but older people experience contentment based on achievement and appreciation of the finer things in life or observing other people's value of their work.

Inferred, contentment is more fluid than most realize.

We tend to think of contentment as an end state, bliss, and enduring when it is temporary and fluid based on a perceived mastery of a completed task. To remain content, one must be prolific, completing many projects rewarding proficiency.

Contentment in positive psychology is a positive mental state after a job well done. It can include a sense of wonder and is why travel is equated to leisure. Although you did not build it, you can feel content at the top of the Eiffel Tower on your bucket list. Others could not care less. Then, that individual, positive mental state wanes, but the continued need for it does not.

This need for contentment affects career choices.

Architects become architects since many create objects of lasting value that endure and can be pleasantly observed. However, a clown at a circus makes the kids happy, not content. Some careers make it more likely than others to feel content more frequently, but that mental state is often dubious or devious. I can feel content believing I did a good session with a client, then the next session, the client tells me things that caused a relapse. Contentment is in the eye of the beholder.

The mental state is also devious in that artists to become content create anxiety to reduce as the reward culminating in contentment. This seems round-a-bout but works. Many works of art began with tension and dissatisfaction "cured" by the process and the outcome.


Failure motivates many to work harder to reconstitute that content feeling.

If we could always remain content, it would impair creativity, invention, and progress. The need for that feeling helps to motivate change, defining progress. Yet to aspire to be content is a fool's task. The content feeling is far from inevitable. People fail all the time. Mental health is the resilience after a failure to feel content and move on or work harder.


Success is different than "being successful." The "high" of a gold medal at the Olympics lasts a few weeks, then onto other things or struggling to regain the same forms to win again. To remain that motivated over time challenges the original contentment feeling. In sports psychology, athletes train to "peak" at the event.

"Success depression" often follows contentment.

Associated with contentment is depression that the content state will never be achieved again. If at a pinnacle, why mess with fate? You might fail at the next task and be unhappy and, in hindsight, think, " I became too confident and now feel lousy. I should have stopped while ahead."

In baseball, a batter breaks the home run record. Everyone applauds. The player takes pleasure in that mental glow. Then next season's opening day, everyone expects the batter to hit a home run every time at-bat. So once being content, we move the bar as to what content means to an impossible level.

I once had an app, a strategy board game, in the Apple app store. One day there were thirty downloads. I was happy anyone in the world cared but not content. The following week, on one day, there were 25,000 downloads. I was satisfied for a brief time but soon discontented when that 25,000 was an anomaly later averaging fifty downloads a day.

I was content graduating high school and college and receiving a Master's degree, but more content defending my dissertation for my PH.D. Then on a faculty, you are at the bottom of the Totem Pole again, discontented as to power and influence seeking tenure to redefine contentment.

I was content after my first professional book was published but discontented until the second book was published to more significant fanfare and accolades. Once an achievement baseline is established, contentment moves with it. In other words, we can't win because the definition of "winning" and sense of satisfaction keeps changing.

What does it mean "to have it all?"

The key to remaining content is enjoying the process of achieving it. In this way, you beat the psychological system at its own game. You no longer rely on a completed task but enjoy the journey.

Happiness is inherent in contentment but not equal to it.

Contentment is often confused with happiness. "I am happy to be alive," said the soldier after the battle. Yet, the next battle is tomorrow, causing consternation impairing that temporary elated contented state.

Contentment is within the psychological structure of optimal level of arousal (OLA). If too content, there is mania. If discounted, there is depression. And what makes you content is different than what makes me content since we are on separate life paths.

There are spiritual paths to contentment.

Contentment is the foundation of fulfillment sought in positive psychology, humanism, Buddhism, and spirituality. Happiness, a state, is a possible precursor to general well-being.

Contentment is very personal. It includes a task's perceived mastery and completeness so that feeling lasts until you do the next item on your list. Feeling content is more reliable when in school. A grade defines your success, but in real life honest feedback is rarely that clear and objective.

Social media undermines contentment.

Optimal mental health is a delicate balancing act of the personal and interpersonal. You might feel content personally but stigmatized interpersonally if your success is ideologically based and others disagree. This happens all the time on social media. There are always dissenters and critics.

And here is the kicker. To fully appreciate contentment, you must experience discontentment for contrast. Thus, being in a bad mood is not bad since any improvement might be perceived as a reward.

There are cultural, technological, and political-economic factors defining contentment.

There is no universal standard for contentment except defined by political economics. In capitalism, we are supposed to be more content with more money, but money does not buy happiness, and more is never enough. Contentment over time is usually more personal related to family life, health, security, and making a positive difference.

Technology has changed the rules of contentment given access to everyone's perfect day posted on Facebook. And Instagram makes teenage girls discontented comparing idealized norms.

The life cycle changes the meaning of contentment.

Many problems in living are linked to failure to adapt to change correlated to normal life cycle developmental changes from baby to adolescent to young adult, adulthood, late adulthood, and older age.

Each life phase has its challenges, opportunities, and limitations. Over time, as we mature, especially once the frontal lobes are entirely online, we “know better” (we are reasonable) and “live and learn,” culminating in more extended periods of contentment, a state of positive psychology. And these states shift contentment from personal achievement to external interpersonal factors, like a grandparent feeling contented watching their grandchildren grow up. It's that proud feeling older people have looking back.

The perfect day.

In hindsight, every life has one perfect day but is impossible to identify in real-time but to expect this daily is self-defeating, the very definition of psychopathology. This perfect day deals with choice points and can be based on happenstance.

The (new) positive psychology entangles multiple positive mental states.

There is a hierarchy to positive psychology: satisfaction, contentment, happiness, well being. These mental states are tangled. One state is not better than the other. All states are fluid and can come and go in an instant.

Satisfaction is a contingent reward. The mental state is fleeting.

Contentment is also a temporary state for a job well done based on self-assessment. And others may well disagree, and that is why art and commerce don't mix. Taste is fickle.

Happiness can be pursued but ensues transitioning to contentment. I would rather be happy than content, but these positive emotions tangle, then separate over time.

Well-being is a transient state linked to biology and psychology. You must be in good physical health and be optimistic.

Unique forms of intense contentment.

There are specialized individual contentment states: flow, astonishment, enchantment, laughter, asceticism, sensation-seeking, bliss, to transcendental religious fervor.

During invention, content in the process, I achieve flow, as my satisfaction is independent of outcome. However, ideally, to be content, a state and not a trait, you have had a say in the matter, rate the outcome as beneficial or the best you could do, all things considered.

Thus for humans, contentment does not happen that often accelerating progress and civilization. That is, more things happen in less time to achieve a rare state.

References

Cordaro, D.T., Brackett, M, and Glass, L (2016). Contentment perceived completeness across cultures and traditions. Review of General Psychology, 8, 505-516. Sage Publishing, Los Angeles.

Nutter, K.D. (2021) Finding Contentment in a Chaotic World. Self Published.

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