If you can only have happiness or contentment, choose contentment

Contentment always trumps happiness

While we pursue happiness, 
we flee from contentment.

— Hasidic proverb

I stumbled across this provocative pithy proverb in Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel.

It’s one of those quotes that stopped me in my tracks and I’ve been pondering on it since.

I’ve been thinking about what we mean by happiness and contentment too. They are after all, at first glance, very similar in meaning.

And yet, is it truly possible that, similar as they are, in the pursuit of one we find ourselves abandoning the other?

When I think of happiness I think of circumstances. Happiness is, for me, a response to something happening. Watching a great film at the cinema. Enjoying a romantic weekend away with my wife. Delighting in time spent with my young daughters. Having fun with friends. Being immersed in a good book. Buying the latest Apple device. Going on holiday.

All these things bring happiness to me. My life is richer for being able to have these moments.

But what if, for whatever reason, some of these things were no longer possible? Maybe the loss of a job means we can’t afford that fancy holiday. And I have to say no to the latest Apple device. Perhaps we have to settle for M&S’s dine in for two for a tenner over the romantic weekend away.

This is when contentment trumps happiness.

Happiness drives us to always pursue more: go to more places; have more experiences; buy more things.

Contentment says, whatever we have, wherever we are, whatever we do, I choose to be satisfied.

It is a peacefulness that overrides whatever the circumstances are.

I hope, naturally, that life will afford me both happiness and contentment. But if I make happiness my goal—if I constantly seek more—I can see how contentment will pass me by.

If we can only have one, choose contentment. But in choosing that, we open ourselves to the possibility of both. If we choose only the pursuit of happiness, we will miss out on the contentment that actually keeps us mentally and emotionally healthy through life’s inevitable ups and downs.

Image: Eli DeFaria

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