Given an option, most people would pursue happiness? But, what if you pursue contentment rather than happiness?
Contentment—the knowledge that things are OK exactly as they are, right now—is highly valued by many cultures.
It was 2014, and my research team—including the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner—was studying a remote group of former nomads high in the Himalayas of Eastern Bhutan. This was a place that no outsider had ever traveled to before, and we were about to make first contact with one of the three last uncontacted villages on planet earth. We traveled through the jungle, hiked down a mountain, forded a river, and then hiked up another mountain to a little settlement of about 200 families who had been living there since who knows when.
With a single laptop charge, we conducted the final piece of a five-year study to identify the human emotions that are universal across cultures. We brought a long list of potential universal emotions—from shame to joy to embarrassment—to see if they could be recognized by people who had no experience with the outside world. That means no electricity, no internet, no cell phones, no printed media—nothing.
Incredibly, when we showed the villagers dozens of facial and vocal expressions, they recognized the vast majority of the emotions with relatively high accuracy. But there was one emotion that didn’t behave like all the others. It was different.
The emotion was contentment, and while we were working on translating our study, our guide, Dr. Dorji Wangchuk, stopped for a moment when we reached this word.
“In our culture, this emotion is very special. It is the highest achievement of human well-being, and it is what the greatest enlightened masters have been writing about for thousands for years.” Now that was a conversation starter, and I asked him for the translation. “It’s hard to translate it exactly, but the closest word is chokkshay, which is a very deep and spiritual word that means ‘the knowledge of enough.’ It basically means that right here, right now, everything is perfect as it is, regardless of what you are experiencing outside.”
This was the moment when lightning struck for me, and I immediately felt chills down my entire body. No matter where I went on planet earth, all of the cultures I interacted with revered contentment as one of the highest states to cultivate in life. Yet in the West, we were obsessing about happiness—and feeling more anxious, depressed, and stressed.
I decided to dig in and see what kind of ancient secrets could be revealed through a scientific investigation of the most underappreciated emotion in history: contentment.
Contentment vs. happiness
To begin the investigation, after I was hired at Yale University, my new research team dove into over 5,000 years of human philosophy and 200 years of scientific research into the nature of the mind.
When the dust settled, two different strategies emerged that humans have been using for thousands of years to find some form of well-being.
The first is the “More Strategy”
where people try to find more money, more power, more stuff, more validation, and more success from the world outside of them. If I offered you $1,000 right now, I’m sure you would be very happy. It’s OK to admit it—I would be happy, too.
The only problem is the next question: How long does the happiness last from receiving that money? As soon as you put the money into your pocket, the happiness begins to diminish, and shortly you’ll find yourself needing another hit.
While there’s nothing wrong with temporary boosts in wellness, the problem with the More Strategy is that it’s simply not sustainable. The More Strategy costs a lot of time, energy, and resources to keep it up.
Browsing the infinite corridors of Amazon.com, you can find over 20,000 self-help books with the word “happiness” in the title. Each promises a brighter, more positive future through practices that invoke the world’s most popular emotion. There is something about happiness that has everyone captivated, but at the same time, few actually seem to find it.
Happiness may not last long but contentment will always be there. This is where the second strategy comes in, and it’s one that’s worth studying deeply.
The second is the “Enough Strategy”
where people direct their attention inward to find the happiness that’s already inside of them. While pouring through thousands of years of ancient wisdom traditions, my team and I were shocked to find that the ancients almost never used the word happiness when they were talking about what it means to be well.