Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Happiness vs. Contentment

I had a discussion with one of my students recently about happiness.  We were talking about different cultures around the world, and we discussed that in all of the areas of the world where the average life expectancy was higher than most other place the people seemed to be over all happier.  We talked about this for a while to try and find out what common threads there were between the people that lived for a long time.  There were some dietary commonalities, but something that was similar in all of the people is that they were active with working to help their families and communities.  The men and women in these areas had a very strong since of belonging and family that kept them working.  I am not talking about working as in a job, but working as in taking care of children, gardening and other activities that promote the common well-being.  After some contemplation I think we discovered what it was that made these people live so long.........

At first the thought came up that these people were just happy, and that got us talking about how many Americans are not happy.  We are so focused on results and goal achievement that we do not do the things that lead to happiness.  This strikes me as odd because I consider myself a pretty happy person, but I tend to focus more on results and goal achievement than on things that are supposed to make us "happy."  The student I was talking with told me he was the same way.  After some more thought we decided that it was not happiness that people need to live long, but it was contentment, or fulfillment.  In all of the areas that people usually lived a lot longer, the people had a strong sense of purpose that keep them active and working towards the well being of people that were important to them.  This fit perfectly along with how I felt, and I have felt this way for a long time but putting it into words when I discussed it with my student was refreshing.

What we realized is that we don't need happiness to be "happy."  We need to feel contentment and fulfillment from what we do; we need to have a sense of purpose.  Too many Americans it seems are working really hard to reach happiness, but the activities that they do on a daily basis to get there do not provide contentment.  I don't think that working 15 hour days makes anyone "happy" but if your work gives you a sense of purpose that leaves you content with the work you have done, then it doesn't matter that we are not happy, because we have something better than happiness; we are fulfilled.  The trick to it then is to find what it is that will give you this feeling.  From my personal experience and from what I have seen from observing others that seem "happy," the kind of life that does this is one filled with passion for what you do, and in every instance I can recall it involves helping others as much as if not more than yourself.  If you can derive fulfillment and happiness from others being fulfilled and happy then it matters very little how "happy" you are by the common standards because you can create happiness for yourself any time by helping others.

“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”