Contentment over Happiness: Why It’s Better To Be Content Than Happy


Better To Be Content Than Happy

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.”

contentment over happiness
Contentment Over Happiness: Why It’s Better To Be Content Than Happy

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.

Related: 3 Essential Lessons Which Will Help You Achieve True Happiness

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, 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.

Related: 30 Important Life Lessons I’ve Learned In The First 30 Years Of My Life

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.

More than 90 percent of the time, they used the word contentment instead of happiness, and described it as a state of “unconditional wholeness,” regardless of what is happening externally.

The root of the word contentment comes from the Latin contentus, which means “held together” or “intact, whole.” Originally, contentus was used to describe containers, literally things like cups, buckets, and barrels.

Later, the word evolved into something that could reflect onto a person, which describes one who feels complete, with no desires beyond themselvesContentus asks the question, “How whole do you feel inside? How complete are you as a human being?”

This perspective shifts the entire narrative of humanity’s quest for something greater. All other emotions require external input; they are reactions to the outside world. Contentment, on the other hand, requires no external input and is sourced entirely from within. Instead of seeking external sources for happiness—which are always going to be out of our control—contentment (rather than happiness) offers incredible power and stability.

In fact, we can feel contentment even when our external environment is completely nuts. Think of the unflinching calm of a Formula 1 driver taking a corner at 180 miles per hour, or the feeling of wholeness when the family is around the dinner table together, even if the kids are fighting again.

Related: Harvard Study Finds #1 Way To Happiness

Unlike happiness, contentment comes from our relationship to what is going on around us, rather than our reaction to it. It is the peaceful realization that we are whole and complete just as we are, despite the anger, sadness, joy, frustration, and excitement that may come in and out from time to time.

contentment over happiness
Contentment Over Happiness: Why It’s Better To Be Content Than Happy

How to cultivate contentment

Instead of striving for temporary happiness, we can settle into a sustainable sense of contentment that nobody can take away from us, and nobody can give to us, either. It is already inside of us, and it just takes a little practice to begin experiencing it for ourselves.

There are many great practices that help you cultivate contentment, and they’re all surprisingly simple, they’re evidenced by hundreds of scientific studies, and they require no fancy equipment. These strategies are highly sustainable and can bring massive benefits for little cost—they usually just take a small bit of time during your day to find some peace and silence.

1. Practice mindfulness. 

The first one may not surprise you, because everyone from doctors to athletes to Oprah has endorsed it over the past few decades. Mindfulness is the cultivation of focused attention to the present moment, without judging your experiences as good or bad.

Related: How Mindfulness Can Improve Your Overall Mental Health

It is one of the most well-studied practices for calming down the body and weathering the manic cyclone of the mind. There are literally thousands of websites, videos, and apps where you can learn how to practice mindfulness and gain contentment rather than temporary happiness.

The added bonus that I will offer is for you to notice how you feel while practicing mindfulness, even for a short while. Does your body feel relaxed? Does your mind feel a bit more calm? Do you feel that everything is a little bit more OK than it was just a few minutes ago, for no apparent reason? Do you feel less needy, more resourced? That’s contentment coming online. Focus on this feeling, and cultivate it so that you can bring it into your life with greater and greater frequency. You need to pursue contentment over happiness again and again.

Related: 13 Best Videos On Mindfulness for Kids

2. Identify your well-being contingencies. 

A well-being contingency is an external factor that you believe is required for you to feel complete as a human being. Some common well-being contingencies include:

  • When I have $X in my bank account, then I’ll be happy.
  • When I achieve X at work, then I’ll finally feel good about my job.
  • When X gives me the validation I’m looking for, then I’ll be satisfied.
  • When I purchase X material item, then I’ll be doing well.
  • When I’m X years old, then I can retire and finally enjoy life.
  • When my kids achieve X, then I’ll know I was a successful parent.

While it’s OK to have goals, unhealthy attachments to well-being contingencies can be problematic, because they create dependencies that are out of your control. They also reinforce the idea that you can’t be OK right now and that self-love and acceptance need to wait until later.

Related: Ryff’s Model of Psychological Well-being: How Happy Are You?

If you’re a human being, you likely have a few of these contingencies running in the background programming of your subconscious mind. Take some time to reflect, and map them out. Keep the ones that you like, and deeply reflect on the ones that are holding you back from your ideal life.

Ask yourself how you can begin to feel whole, complete, and unconditionally accepting of yourself right now instead of waiting years for these contingencies to be fulfilled—if they are ever fulfilled at all. This will empower you to take ownership of your personal well-being, instead of leaving it up to other people and factors that are largely out of your control.

3. Radically accept all emotions. 

This is a tough practice, and you’re probably not going to like it—at first. Imagine a world where every emotion that you experience comes and goes like a wave on the ocean, like a visitor that stays for a while and gently leaves when it’s ready.

There are very few guarantees in life, but one that I can offer with absolute certainty is that whatever you are feeling right now is going to change soon. By definition, emotions have a lifespan. They have triggers, they rise to their apex, and then they gently taper away before being replaced by a new emotion. This is part of what it means to be human.

Related: The Way Each Zodiac Sign Deals With Their Emotions

This seems all well and good, but the problem arises when we begin to create unhealthy relationships with our emotions. There are some emotions that we like so much that we hold on to them with a white-knuckle death grip—emotions like happiness, joy, elation, serenity, and other really, really pleasant feelings.

There are other emotions that we despise so much that we would prefer to never feel them again as long as we live—emotions like shame, sadness, despair, embarrassment, rage, and other really, really unpleasant feelings.

Which emotions do you want to always feel? Which would you prefer to never feel? It turns out that at the end of the day, all emotions are here to guide us and provide valuable information about the world around us. What if, instead of trying to cling to some emotions while pushing others away, you instead allowed all feelings to come and go, without needing to change them?

This radical appreciation of all of life’s experiences is a cornerstone to contentment, which is the idea that right here, right now, everything is OK as it is. Yes, that means we can be content with our sadness, content with our anger, content with our shame. We can be content with our elation, joy, and peace—and everything in between.

Related: The Best Way To Cultivate Contentment And Inner Peace In Yourself

Contentment is the underlying acceptance of what it means to be human, unconditional love for all of life’s experiences, without the need for anything more than what is here right now. Once we learn how to bring this into our lives on a regular basis, we can finally begin to understand what the ancients meant by the knowledge of enough, the acceptance of the present moment, and true happiness.

Would you rather be happy or content? Let me know in comments.

Written by: Daniel Cordaro

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Republished with permission.

Better To Be Content Than Happy Pin
Contentment Over Happiness: Why It’s Better To Be Content Than Happy

— Share —

— About the Author —


  1. Dany Avatar

    Throughout my Long and Difficult Journey, I have Discovered to Always Be Content and Live in My Present!!!
    Yesterday is gone, and Tomorrow is never promised!!!

Leave a Reply

Up Next

The Modern Day Stoic: Unlocking Ancient Wisdom For Everyday Resilience

Becoming a Modern Day Stoic: Tips for Tranquility

In a world filled with endless notifications, constant digital distractions, and information overload, how can we find inner calm and contentment? The ancient philosophy of Stoicism may hold the answers we’re searching for. Let’s find out how to be a modern day stoic and apply stoicism in the digital age.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that emphasizes living in accordance with reason and virtue. The Stoics believed that the key to a good and meaningful life lies in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not worrying about factors outside of our control.

Up Next

Datsuzoku: The Japanese Philosophy For Breaking Free From Routine And Rediscovering Creativity

Datsuzoku: The Power of The Japanese philosophy for creativity

Do you feel creatively dried up? Do you feel a complete lack of creativity in your professional and personal life? If so, the Japanese concept of Datsuzoku may be just what you need to unlock your creative powers.

When you become stuck in routine life, it is likely that you will feel a lack or loss of creativity in your life as creativity does not emerge from a monotonous lifestyle. This is why it is crucial to incorporate Datsuzoku in daily life.

But exactly what is Datsuzoku? And how to practice Datsuzoku? It is a philosophy that has long been revered in Japanese culture for a long time. And by understanding Datsuzoku significance you can build a more creative and Zen lifestyle for yourself.

What is Datsuzoku?

Up Next

From Triggers To Turmoil: What Causes Adjustment Disorder And How To Overcome

What Causes Adjustment Disorder And How To Overcome

Life is a journey filled with ups and downs, and each of us faces numerous challenges along the way. While most people find ways to adapt and cope with these challenges, some individuals may experience significant difficulties in adjusting to life’s stressors. This can lead to a condition known as adjustment disorder. But what causes adjustment disorder?

Today, we will delve into the intricacies of adjustment disorder, exploring what is adjustment disorder, its symptoms, causes, and available treatment for adjustment disorder in adults. So, let’s gain a better understanding of adjustment disorder and how it affects individuals in their daily lives.

What is Adjustment Disorder?

Up Next

Cosmic Insignificance Therapy: Embracing Our Place In The Universe

What Is Cosmic Insignificance Therapy?

Have you ever heard of the cosmic insignificance therapy? To say that this whole concept is interesting will be an understatement. This article is going to dive deep into what is cosmic insignificance therapy and how it can help us navigate our way through life and emotions.


Cosmic insignificance therapy invites us to create distance to our challenges, emotions, and thoughts.

Coined by Oliver Burkeman, it is an ancient technique with roots in Stoicism and Asian wisdom traditions.

It can help us take ourselves and our problems less seriously and to become more

Up Next

Philosophy And Depression: Does Studying Philosophy Make You Depressed?

Is There A Connection Between Philosophy And Depression?

Ever thought about the purpose of life? Or maybe about the nature of reality? If so, you may be curious about the fascinating realm of philosophy. However, most people believe that philosophy and depression are closely related. 

So is it true that studying philosophy makes you depressed? Can being philosophical lead to a state of existential angst and melancholy? 

For centuries, this field of philosophical study has been a source of curiosity and reflection. Whether it’s the deep thoughts of ancient Greek philosophers or contemporary philosophical musings, philosophy has molded our beliefs & understanding of the world around us and how we fit into it.

So today let us find the answer to the age old question – Does studying philosophy make you depressed? 

Up Next

What Does It Mean To Be A Stoic? 19 Common Stoic Personality Traits And Characteristics

What Does It Mean To Be a Stoic? Stoic Personality Traits

Have you ever wondered how some individuals manage to stay calm and composed even in the face of adversity? How do they navigate life’s challenges with a serene sense of inner peace? The answer lies in possessing stoic personality traits. Let’s explore what does it mean to be a stoic and what is a stoic person like.

The philosophy of Stoicism is an ancient school of thought that has endured the test of time and continues to inspire countless individuals today. Let’s understand who is a stoic person, explore stoic personality meaning and what makes a person stoic.

What Does It Mean To Be a Stoic?

Up Next

25+ Lord Krishna Quotes That Will Revolutionize Your Perspective on Life and Love!

Positive Krishna Quotes on Life | Radha Krishna Love Quotes

Discover the timeless wisdom of Lord Krishna quotes, and lessons from the Bhagavad Gita. These insightful teachings have transcended time and culture, offering guidance on life’s most profound questions. 

The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture, encapsulates Krishna’s dialogues with the warrior Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, serving as a doctrine of universal truth.

Translating these verses into English is a delicate task, aiming to convey the depth of spiritual knowledge while retaining the essence of Krishna’s teachings.