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 themselves. Contentus 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.