Happiness or contentedness?

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

I was having dinner one evening with a musician who played keyboards in a beat group for a living. We were talking about writing music and so on. I told him that one of my favourite songs of theirs was entitled ‘What Do You Want From Life?’ This is the final verse: ‘What do you want from life – someone to love and somebody that you can trust? What do you want from life – to try and be happy while you do the nasty things you must?’ This song also has the funniest last line of any ever written; but we’ll not go there until we get to know each other better . . .

Happiness or contentment – what do you want from life?

So, what do you want from life? I never really knew myself – not for the first 35 years anyhow. Then things got a little clearer, but not so as I truly understood my intuited, yet still opaque goal. At the time I was in business, but weirdly, it wasn’t to make pots of money; which was just as well. I sort of stumbled, through chance and necessity, into the commercial world. It was almost as if by accident, more than by intelligent design on my part. Thinking back, it was a bit like Eccles sense of things when Seagoon asked of him ‘What are you doing here?’ Eccles replied: ‘Everybody’s got to be somewhere’.

It seems that when asked what it is that we want from life, most of us end up including the notion of happiness in our response. That is, if we’re not merely content, as Eccles apparently was, to simply ‘be somewhere’. Happiness is a perfectly reasonable, pretty desirable objective – it would be perverse to reject it were it to be readily attainable.  And it frequently is of course, even if only in glimpses – the smile of our children, a canopy of a brilliant blue sky, laughter amongst friends, a fulfilling relationship, or the accomplishment of some important objective perhaps. Yes, we all want some happiness from life.

So what’s the problem with happiness; isn’t it all we need?

Happiness has an aspect of pleasure within it, an aspect of gratification, of joy and a partial if fleeting sense of contentment. In so far as it goes – meaning in so long as it endures – there’s little more we could want in terms of a felt emotion, a felt reality. So what’s the problem with thinking happiness is all we need; why would we want anything more from life? Because it ends. Happiness is transient; it’s also a little dubious in terms of its subjective appreciation. Am I happy? – ‘well, fairly, yes, I think so, pretty happy overall; can’t complain’. You see what I mean? It’s not so obvious an emotion; it has levels to it; we want it, but even when we have it we don’t want it to end; yet it always does.

So my take on things, and the reason I work on this site and write elsewhere, is because this answer isn’t really sufficient, accurate or revealing – my take on things is that what we want from life is something beyond a transient and constrained feeling of happiness. What we want, beyond as the song suggested, someone to love and somebody that we can trust, and beyond trying to be happy while we ‘do the nasty things’ we must, is this: What we want from life is to be free of want altogether, to be free of a constant struggle for all transient and ephemeral forms of reward.

To be free of striving and want is fulfilment itself; it’s to rest content

Behind all the self-interested striving, and the vaguely conceived, frequently misguided ambitions for fulfilment, what we want is to rest content in what is. It’s that simple. We want to be free of striving and to rest in acceptance of things just as they are, in a full appreciation that this too will change regardless of our needs, our egocentric desires and aversions. This isn’t giving up; it isn’t a surrendering into a submissive acquiescence. It’s just our own innate wisdom knowing that all the narrow and self-interested fabrications of our minds are never going to prove fulfilling in any ultimate sense.

Perhaps you disagree? If so, post a comment and tell me how my analysis is incomplete. I’m open to persuasion, but only if I can validate matters in my own life, from personal, direct experience. My own take on these things was formed after decades of enquiring into this question. This doesn’t mean I regard those views as unimpeachable; so feel free to question and to respectfully criticise; perhaps together we can learn from each other? There’s no absolute authority presumed on my part whatsoever; I’ve no desire for that in the least. What would be good though is discussion; polite exchange – because this question is very important when you think about it.

When life shakes us up, we’re forced to ask the vital questions

I left the restaurant with the musician, and we drove off to a factory in Sunnyvale near San Jose. We were going to look at a new keyboard synthesiser that a friend had designed and was about to go into production with. It was a bright and sunny day, the mood was carefree and we chatted idly. Amongst the back and forth I was asked, somewhat predictably ‘so, what do you want from life Hariod?’ It felt like a tremor deep within me; it was obvious I hadn’t a clue. As we arrived at our friend’s place, a powerful earthquake struck. It was centred at Livermore some 30 miles away to the North-East, yet it made the telegraph poles sway alarmingly around us. I felt queasy for the rest of the afternoon. The ground I stood upon had shifted; it wasn’t as firm as I’d thought . . .


14 thoughts on “Happiness or contentedness?

  1. I’ve been in a plane that descended 25,000 feet in one minute, and I’ve been in an earthquake. What was scariest? The earthquake. I never had fear during the plane descent, or afterwards. (That of course has a story behind it.) I felt fear from the earthquake for weeks to months afterwards, even though it did no damage to me or to my house. Not having firm ground under your feet is indeed unsettling.

    • Crikey, a descent of 25,000 feet in one minute sounds quite terrifying Karuna. Then again, whenever I’ve been buffeted around badly in turbulence I’ve not really experienced fear. Maybe that was because there was a knowledge that I was utterly helpless, and that fear is more likely to arise when we sense we have some remote possibility of reaching safety? I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it before. Certainly though, the earthquake I experienced in San Jose all those years ago had quite a profound effect upon me at the time. It was a point at which a very fundamental assumption about my existence had been undermined – by all means not a bad thing of course.

      With metta, Hariod.

      • There were two explanations I came up with, one of which I think is similar to what you are saying. In the plane incident death was a real possibility, so it was like a near death experience. I did not think I was going to die in the earthquake, so something else was triggered.

        A major difference however, was that for about 8 weeks prior to the plane problem, I felt a compulsion to say my mantra A LOT and to chant the Sri Lalitha Sahasranama daily. I did it. When the plane was descending all that was important was my mantra. I felt incredibly peaceful.

        I wrote about that experience in this post: http://livinglearningandlettinggo.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/a-reason-to-believe/.

        • What an amazing story, and yet very much one of positive affirmation – of faith, of love, and of the value of heeding our instincts. I have no resistance to accepting the content of this story without reservation, having had several instances in my own life that have parallels – though perhaps none quite so dramatic as yours in their unfolding.

          So pleased to have made contact with you; truly. Hariod.

  2. Dear Hariod,

    Your questioning the difference between happiness and contentedness is quite profound; and I will be giving it much more thought. I know it’s much more than a wordsmiths quest. In the meantime, I’d like to share my surprise to discover some experiences we share in common.

    I lived for many years near Cupertino and Sunnyvale, which you mention, and have ridden quite a few earthquakes. For one, I happened to be in the basement of a major San Francisco convention center when it had its first quake. Since I had been through many, I knew instantly what it was and what to do – look for something safe to be under. I was saddened to see many attendees start running at top speed towards the two-story high all-glass entrance – absolutely the wrong place to be post-quake. Fortunately, the new construction held. Although I don’t live near there now, I still choose earthquakes over steep, sudden airplane descents!

    The second commonality is rather surprising – your mention of a band I’ve seen many times: The Tubes, one of the most popular during their heyday. [More years ago than, ahem, I choose to consider at this moment] I will let you choose when and if you want to share which of those lyrics seemed the most novel.

    Reading your words brings me a mixture of happiness and contentedness, and I’ll let you know what I unearth in considering them as separate.


    Vincent Paz.

    • Dear Vincent,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read this article and for responding so graciously with a comment; I greatly appreciate it. I firmly believe that it’s worth considering whether it is happiness we seek in life, or in fact if something deeper, more enduring, and which I choose to call contentedness, is actually what lies at the base of our innermost callings. The former is an overlay of emotionality and feeling upon the sense of selfhood; the latter is a far deeper resting within our authentic state of being, beyond selfhood and beyond narrative.

      As to earthquakes, then I have only ever experienced the one I mention in the article. To my surprise, there was quite a lot of panic in others when it occurred, and I daresay this was because they were more informed about the dangers than I was at the time. Your own presence of mind during the experience in San Francisco was admirable Vincent; whereas for myself, I just stood there watching events unfold around me like an idiot. Afterwards, we went to a Mexican restaurant and I remember feeling quite queasy due to subliminal perceptions of recurrent aftershocks.

      Oh The Tubes were such great fun, and exceptionally talented and intelligent too. I used to love catching their shows in London back in the day, presumably just as you did in California. As to the closing lyrics of ‘What do you want from life’, you’ll have to do the detective work yourself my friend. 😉

      With my very best regards to you Vincent.


  3. This is a great post, you explain matters better than I can – that happiness is more an outside thing, contentment more an inside feeling. I am pleased I found this post. Are you a musician?

    • Thank you very much for being so kind as to consider my words Jack; I greatly appreciate your interest. Your words of approval encourage me greatly as I get to grips with short-form writing here; so many thanks also for them. I have dabbled with musical instruments in the past, though having worked in the business and knowing many real musicians, I most certainly appreciate that I don’t fall into that category! _/\_

  4. I think your analysis is quite cogent and concise. Some of my own thoughts on the matter of happiness vs. contentment are strongly influenced by the fact that I was born and raised in America and have had little opportunity to learn what makes people ‘happy’ elsewhere in the world.

    The capitalist/consumerist machine of America and the Western world market a perception of happiness that is purposefully unreachable. It’s a carrot of ownership, always just beyond reach, dangling on a string of debt from a stick of net worth, which is nailed to the head of every consumer at birth. Our indoctrination defines success as owning the best, biggest, newest, fastest, most exclusive and most expensive of everything.

    Millions of people waste most of their lives in pursuit of that unattainably extravagant ‘happiness’, and never give a moment’s thought to achieving contentment. When the rigged system offers, for the great majority, scant success at achieving even the lower levels of this material happiness, then frustration, resentment and rage are to be expected. Nor is it mere chance that these conditions are widespread and increasing. The purposed and inevitable outcome of the private ownership/for-profit paradigm is totalitarian, global plutocracy:

    1. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) the rule or control of society by the wealthy
    2. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) a state or government characterized by the rule of the wealthy
    3. (Government, Politics & Diplomacy) a class that exercises power by virtue of its wealth
    [from Greek ploutokratia government by the rich, from ploutos wealth + -kratia rule, power]

    This is the dominant culture of modern civilisation, which will inevitably end in systemic failure and collapse.

    Just my opinion.

    • Thank you so much for this marvellously perceptive and acute response to the matter. In reading your words it felt as if I could have authored them myself. The above article tackles the issue from a psychological perspective of course, which is the prevailing theme of this site. However, you offer in your comment the other side of the same coin, or perhaps one could say, the material causes of the immaterial and problematic resultant.

      I wondered as I read your thoughts, whether you were familiar with the work of Chris Hedges. His book, Death of the Liberal Class, would seem to relate strongly to your own perspective, such as it appears here. Without wishing to impose upon you, I thought it might be an idea to include below a video made by a British film maker called Temujin Doran. It is somewhat bleak viewing, yet chimes very much with your own conclusions.

      Also on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/59002146

      Thank you very much for your generous, clear and most perceptive comment.

      With all best wishes,


  5. Hariod, your manner, your style and your elegant use of language are rays of light in what is becoming a very dark world. Thank you.

    And thank you as well for the link to the film Obey – a very stirring presentation, which quite literally brought tears to my eyes. I have embedded it just now on my site.

    As to Mr. Hedges, I have read many of his articles online and do have a copy of Death of the Liberal Class in PDF format but have yet to find the time to read it.

    While I sometimes enjoy waxing philosophical, I most often find myself forced to confront, as you say, the material causes of things. As it happens, the subject of happiness vs. contentment has always been one of great interest to me so this article virtually leapt out at me from your sidebar menu. I think the distinction between these two states is closely related to an understanding of the difference between what is wanted and what is needed.

    • Thank you so much once again, for your kind and supportive words, and for providing a little more information on your position. I have noted the link to the article on your site and shall of course read it within the next day or so just as soon as I have cleared my backlog of matters here.

      With gratitude and much respect,


  6. I wonder if it is actually contentedness you are looking for, Hariod, or something else. I see contentedness as an extension of happiness.

    Do you ever watch birds? I do. I spend a lot of time with them and am aware that they experience both. When they are fed, they are instantly happy (gratified). Their contentedness comes when they know that there is always food available. The ones that come, regularly, to the garden are expecting food because they’ve had it here before and know where to find it. They are relaxed in the manner of people who are comfortable in their lives. This is not the comfort of possessions or material gain, but of knowing that there is going to be something there for them that has been there before. It is something that sustains their lives.

    They are also contented in knowing they have human protectors (there is a relationship between them and us) and if a predator is about they seek us out (‘us’ being myself and my husband). We see off the predator. How do I know a bird is happy or contented? Depressed birds hang their heads, they look tired, they can’t cope, they fluff out their feathers (what I call the ‘eiderdown effect’ – it keeps them warm.) The opposite of that is perky, alert, aware. Very like humans.

    Here’s the thing. Yes, happiness is fleeting, but contentedness only lasts as long as there is no interruption from outside ourselves. The earthquake disturbed you, you had no control over it. There are so many things in our lives over which we have no control. The major events of our lives, beyond the planet’s protestations, are deaths of loved ones – some expected, some not – and personal traumas. We can – up to a point – change things within ourselves, but we can’t change anything else.

    I think the main obstacle to lasting – I don’t know what to call it, not contentedness to my way of thinking, maybe equilibrium – is our being human. Our brains are not simple enough, not basic enough, to obtain it.

    • Thankyou very much indeed, Val, for your interest and for your acute observations; both are greatly appreciated. I like very much that you’ve abstracted the matter into another specie of the animal world. That said, I don’t think it’s at all clear that birds can manipulate symbolically such as to project in time, and we may just be witnessing in their behaviour evolved and conditioned responses to threats. Still, I am always happy to learn from visitors here, and your experience and the intimacy you clearly share with birds doubtless exceeds mine by some margin. I do live in an area renowned for bird life – a rural part of the Somerset Levels – and provide both food and water for the birds. Many visit here, even coming into my kitchen demanding oats or some breadcrumbs – there’s one very demanding robin who has a gammy leg and who refuses to exit unless rewarded.

      I’ve found that one of the things that makes talking about the mind, consciousness and emotional states at times tricky, is that terminology and language can hold subtly differing meanings to each of us. One person’s ‘mind’ is another’s ‘consciousness’, and yet another’s ‘awareness’, or perhaps ‘cognition’. The terms ‘happiness’ and ‘contentedness’ too are often conflated or considered synonymous. I do have a page here giving my own definition of contentedness – called ‘What is Contentedness?’ – but I of course accept that others have different interpretations. I am currently having a similar issue on my current post in fact: http://wp.me/p4wkZJ-eL There, I’m in discussion with a reader – Mike at Self Aware Patterns – as to whether consciousness has a substrate which itself isn’t sufficient for the designation ‘consciousness’, yet perhaps is for ‘awareness’.

      I suspect that if you looked at my more detailed definition of what I consider to be contentedness – http://wp.me/P4wkZJ-1A – you might see why I would be a little at odds with you over our respective takes on the meaning of the word. In my conception, it is still possible to be content during an earthquake, during unfortunate events, during illness, and (perhaps controversially) during grieving. And I say these things not as some aloof intellectual posturing, but as a result of my own lived experience of those circumstances. I do think you’re onto something with this mention of equilibrium, or perhaps we might call it equanimity? There again, I would venture to suggest that equanimity need not be devoid of physical responses of the nervous system – indeed, they are unavoidable given the nature of our bodies, of course. So again, there could equanimity, which is a mental quality, when undergoing feelings of stress within the body.

      Do please come back at me with any objections you may have to whatever I’ve said here, Val. I certainly don’t pretend to hold unimpeachable positions on anything I say here on this site, and much of the pleasure I derive from running it is in the learning from others such as yourself.

      Once again, and in closing, I do appreciate your presence and engagement.


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