Happiness is an illusion, here’s why you should seek contentment instead

Feeling content means having a deep-seated, abiding acceptance of oneself and one’s worth, together with a sense of self-fulfilment, meaning and purpose. James Theophane/Flickr, CC BY-SA

This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.

I want to share a personal view of what it is to be happy and how it differs from feeling content. Let me begin with a clinical story.

They met at a party; it was love at first sight just like one reads about in romantic novels. They married following an exhilarating courtship, and since they shared an eagerness to raise a family, Jennifer soon announced the joyful news of her pregnancy. They called their baby Annie after Adam’s late mother.

They felt blessed; every moment since their first encounter had been nothing but pleasurable. Everyone who knew them concurred that their lives as a couple had been replete with happiness.

Tragically, it was not to endure. Their first setback occurred only days after Annie’s birth. She was sleeping fitfully and her colic stubbornly persisted. Jennifer felt utterly demoralised as a new mother. Her mounting sense of guilt and melancholy led to her admission to a psychiatric ward (her first ever encounter with psychiatry); the fear of her harming Annie or herself spread through the family and circle of friends.

And then, quite shockingly, despite the most diligent medical and nursing care, Jennifer met her death after jumping off a second floor balcony. Her family and friends plunged into deep grief; the medical professionals who had looked after her were similarly bereft.

An elusive goal

Having worked as a psychiatrist for over four decades and got to know dozens of men, women, and children of diverse backgrounds and with unique life stories, I have witnessed many a sad narrative, although suicide has mercifully been a rare event.

These experiences, in tandem with a lifelong fascination with what makes people tick, have led me most reluctantly to the judgement that while we may savour happiness episodically, it will invariably be disrupted by unwelcome negative feelings. Still, most of humankind will continue to harbour the expectation of living happily and remain oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain.

Rather than confront and demoralise those who have sought my help, I have gently but honestly responded to their plaintive yearning (“all I want is just to be happy”), by highlighting an inherent human sentiment. Namely that clinging to the fiction of being able to avoid suffering and enjoying a continuing state of pleasure is tantamount to self-deception.

I have offered them the hope – but not a guarantee – that they have the potential to lead a more fulfilling life than hitherto by participating in a challenging, and at times even distressing process of self-exploration whose purpose is to enhance self understanding and acceptance of the reality-bound emotional state I call contentment.

You may retort: “But you treat people who are miserable, pessimistic and self-deprecating, surely you must be hopelessly biased.” I would readily understand your reaction but suggest that all of us, not just those in treatment, crave happiness and are repeatedly frustrated by its elusiveness.

Most of humankind continues to harbour the expectation of living happily and remains oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain. Kate Ter Haar/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud emphasised in his 1930 essay, Civilization and Its Discontents, we are much more vulnerable to unhappiness than its opposite. That’s because we are constantly threatened by three forces: the fragility of our physical self, “doomed” by ageing and disease; the external world, with its potential to destroy us (through floods, fires, storms and earthquakes, for example); and our unpredictably complicated relationships with other people (regarded by Freud as the most painful source of unhappiness).

So, am I simply a misanthrope? I hope not but I am inclined to agree with Elbert Hubbard, the American artist and philosopher, who said, “Life is just one damn thing after another”.

We only have to think about the 50 million people who are currently displaced and unlikely to find a secure haven anytime soon, or the 2.2 billion people – including millions of children – who live on less than US$2 a day to appreciate the validity of that remark.

A better option

Given the formidable obstacles to chasing after happiness or promoting its sustainability if we are lucky enough to come by it, what options do human beings have? I have not come across any meaningful approach to this question, even from the unswervingly confident proponents of the contemporary school of positive psychology.

So, I espouse the following: given that we have the means to distinguish between happiness and contentment, we can examine how they differ and, in so doing, identify an alternative to the futile pursuit of happiness.

Happiness, derived from the Norse word hap, means luck or chance; the phrase happy-go-lucky illustrates the association. Many Indo-European languages similarly conflate the feeling of happiness and luck. Glück in German, for instance, can be translated as either happiness or chance, while eftihia, the Greek word for happiness, is derived from ef, meaning good, and tixi, luck or chance.

Thus, a mother may have the good fortune to feel ecstatic when responding to her infant’s playfulness, only to see it evaporate a couple of years later and be replaced by the initial features of autism. In the story we started this article with, Jennifer may have persevered had her baby slept peacefully and not been assailed by colicky pain in her first few weeks of life.

Contentment is derived from the Latin contentus and usually translated as satisfied. No multiple meanings here to confuse us. In my view, feeling content refers to a deep-seated, abiding acceptance of one’s self and one’s worth together with a sense of self-fulfilment, meaning and purpose.

And, most critically, these assets are valued and nurtured whatever the circumstances, or even especially when they are distressing or depressing.

I have had the privilege of knowing men and women who suffered grievously as children in the ghettoes and concentration camps of Nazi Europe but emerged from their nightmare to face the challenge of seeking strengths, emotional and spiritual, within themselves. With the passage of time, many succeeded in achieving a sense of deep-seated contentment.

What these survivors have clearly demonstrated is that accepting and respecting oneself, coupled with determining what is personally meaningful, stand a greater chance of accomplishment, even if never completed, than a relentless and ultimately futile pursuit of happiness. What’s more, contentment has the potential to serve as a robust foundation upon which episodes of joy and pleasure can be experienced and cherished.