Whenever happiness is defined, it usually includes the feeling of being contented. A discontented person is not happy about his lot. Thus a secret of happiness is to learn how to have contentment in life.
But does it mean that, in order to be happy, we should no longer have any ambition, any goals, or any desire for improvement since we are already contented? Doesn’t contentment lead to stagnation?
This point is usually where people misunderstand the meaning of contentment.
Truly contented persons are not those who are no longer seeking improvement. They do. But they calmly accept the circumstances of the present moment because it is the reality of the present moment. The complaint or dissatisfaction that one should have a car now when one cannot afford it yet is not only unrealistic but also foolish. It is to demand for something which is not possible at this moment. If I do this all the time, I will never be a happy person ever, no matter how rich I become or how high a position I attain.
Let’s take another circumstance. Suppose I have no fingers on my right hand since birth. I see that everyone I know has fingers. I am dissatisfied with my situation, even though I know that I can never have fingers in my life. This discontentment is pointless, and only contributes to unhappiness. The moment I can accept my situation then the discontentment ceases. It will no longer be a cause of unhappiness.
Contentment therefore is being able to accept calmly or cheerfully whatever circumstances we find ourselves in at any moment. My hands get dirtied now, then all right, they are dirty. I will wash it off within ten minutes. But while it is dirty, I can accept and live with it. I get sick and am bedridden for two weeks. All right, I am bedridden for two weeks. I accept it and make use of the recuperation time to read books or do something I like. If there is pain, then I accept the pain as it is. After two weeks I go back to work. I am queueing up in a long line and it will take one hour before it comes to my turn. All right, I have to stand and line up for the next one hour. I will be calm and cheerful for the next one hour. My legs are tired; all right, I accept that my legs are tired. What I am queueing up for is worth the temporary tiredness.
Discontentment is non-acceptance of the reality of the present moment. It is to want that this moment should be other than what it is.
Discontentment is also caused by comparison with other people. My neighbor has a car, I should also have a car. This reflects reliance on external social factors for our happiness. Perhaps I really don’t need a car, but I feel inferior if my neighbor has a car and I don’t. It is a reflection of our low self-esteem. The significance of our life is being measured by comparison or competition with others, which is a sure-fire formula for unhappiness. There will always be people who are better situated than us, as there will always be people who are less fortunate than us.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow described self-actualized people, or individuals who are nearer the apex of human maturity, as those whose feeling of self-worth are not dependent on culture or the environment. They are autonomous and depend for their growth on their inner potentials rather than the expectations of other people or society.
This is the reason why children should not be brought up in an atmosphere of competition or ranking or even comparison. Encouraging contests or comparison at home or in schools unconsciously creates a frame of mind that the worth of a person depends upon how one compares with others. It creates insecurity as well as discontentment. Happiness becomes elusive.