Written By: Rourke van Rossem, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), MACP
If I asked you to define happiness, how would you answer? What does happiness feel like? When were you last happy and how did you know it was happiness? I find in my work as a therapist, and through general discussions with friends, the feeling of happiness often gets conflated with pleasure or joy.
Pleasure may come when we land a new job or eat a particularly yummy piece of cake, but ultimately pleasure is fleeting. Pleasure comes from external resources that create an endorphin rush, yet so much of western culture implicitly teaches that happiness and pleasure are the same things, implying that happiness comes from gaining external resources (e.g., jobs, materialism, good grades). If I asked the question "does X bring you happiness or pleasure”, does the difference between the two words become more apparent?
Let’s look at an example. It’s Friday night after a long work week and you’re meeting your friends for dinner. Pleasure might be the server delivering your appetizers and tasting your successful orders, but happiness might be the feeling of connection that is fostered through conversations with your friends. I can revisit the feeling of connection and conversation throughout the weekend to experience happiness again. If I think back to how great the appetizer was, will it bring the same form of happiness? Probably not.
The belief that happiness and pleasure are synonymous and found in external resources is compounded by western culture’s emphasis that you can accomplish happiness with hard work – a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality. This is incorrect, harmful, and a subtle form of societal gaslighting. There are an abundance of obstacles that prevent us from reaching our external goals and aspirations and sometimes no amount of personal effort can overcome these barriers (e.g., systemic and institutional policies, socioeconomic constraints, prejudice). So, if we are wired to seek happiness from external resources and subscribe to a belief system that "hard work" can accomplish any of these goals (thus, hard work brings happiness) we are setting ourselves up for failure. Hard work can at times bring pleasure, but sustainable happiness has to be found from another source.
Another issue with seeking happiness from external sources is that it trains our brain to expect happiness from something in the future. Our brain becomes future-oriented waiting for us to reach happiness. This means that even when we reach our goals we will only reap the benefit for a short period of time before our brain starts looking for the next future-focused endorphin rush. This is not to say that goals are not important. Goals are extremely important, but what else can we use regularly to achieve happiness while we are in pursuit of our goals?
Buddhist teachings have an alternative belief about the source of happiness – happiness comes from an internal state of being. This reframes the belief system of happiness from something we seek/search/strive for outside of ourselves, to something that we seek/search/strive for inside of ourselves – we cultivate our own state of happiness, and we have this control. How do we do this? By finding contentment.
"In order to be happy we must first possess inner contentment; and inner contentment doesn't come from having all we want; but rather from wanting and appreciating being grateful for all we have." – Dalai Lama XIV
I think the most difficult thing to digest about contentment is how to feel this when we are suffering. How do we find contentment when we are in pain? The antidote is acceptance of the present moment, gratitude, and self-compassion. We can acknowledge that something terrible has happened, that we are unhappy with the current results, we are defeated and tired and broken, and that is okay. And, there is still gratitude to uncover in facets of ourselves. What are you grateful for at this moment? Friends? Family? Shelter? Food? Your past accomplishments? The effort you put in? As well, we need to have grace for ourselves. It is okay not to be or have everything we desire, but we can want and desire and appreciate the things that we have. This can be exceptionally hard when our society pushes an agenda of scarcity.
It is easy for the concept of contentment to be conflated with toxic positivity. For people grappling with the difference, I think they are skipping over the point of acceptance. You are allowed to feel all the negative things that accompany your grief. Contentment is not about focusing on only the positive. Instead, we can notice and sit with our discomfort and hurt, while simultaneously remembering to be grateful for what we currently have, and what we have achieved in the past, and have compassion for ourselves for the rest of it. Contentment is not saying “I feel upset about xyz, but…”, contentment is saying “I’m upset about xyz, and…”. Buddhism believes that suffering is inevitable. It is not possible to go through life without suffering. Contentment is not meant to take away the suffering, instead, it hopes to make it more bearable.
Let’s look at another example. The social justice movement has brought a phenomenal societal push for accountability and change. When bearing witness to the injustices around us we are allowed to be angry, hurt, and demand for more. Also, we are allowed to celebrate the progress that has been made and feel grateful for whatever privileges we do possess. These two actions are not antidotal. Contentment is respecting the reality of the present. It is appreciating the things you do have. Contentment does not mean the absence of desire.
As a side note, I’m not sure a Buddhist would agree with me on this (and maybe I would change my mind with more teaching and discussion) but I think it’s okay to put aside gratitude in moments of significant distress and suffering (e.g., the aftermath of a crisis or trauma). It’s okay to not have the capacity to feel gratitude at all times. I believe that by giving ourselves the space and acceptance to sit without having any gratitude and holding compassion for our lack of gratitude, we will likely find our way back to it at some point, when our mind, emotions, and body are able and ready.
So what now? I’ve explained the importance of contentment but how do we actually cultivate this? Gratitude is a practice, not an attitude. Take a few moments to think about something in your life you are truly grateful for and be specific. The exercise is not simply saying “I’m grateful for my friends”. Go deeper by asking why are you grateful for your friends? Which friend(s) in particular? What is it about them that you are grateful for? Why is this something you are grateful for? How do you know this is gratitude? What other emotions do you feel when you think of them? Get curious about your experience. Keep asking yourself more and more questions about it. Imagine you have to defend your gratitude claim and practise this exercise regularly.
As a final note, I invite you to spend some time considering your thoughts on this breakdown of contentment, happiness, pleasure, and joy. Do you agree with the differentiation between these terms? What parts resonate and why? How might you conceptualise some of your life experiences using these terms? What might be missing from these conceptualizations that don't capture your experiences? The one consensus about happiness is that no consensus of this definition exists.
Luke. (n.d.) Achieving Goals Won’t Make You Happy (Neuroscience Proves It). Goal Engineering: Learn to Live With Intention. https://goalengineer.com/achieving-goals-wont-make-you-happy/
Pearce, J. (2019) The Essence of Contentment: How Acceptance Promotes Happiness. Good Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-essence-of-contentment-how-acceptance-promotes-happiness-0911194
Wilding, M. (2016). Why Reaching Your Goals Can Surprisingly Make You Less Happy. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/melodywilding/2016/08/22/why-reaching-your-goals-can-surprisingly-make-you-less-happy/?sh=75394e46b880
Xiv, D. L., & Cutler, H. C. (1999). The art of happiness. Hodder Paperback.