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Contentment vs happiness; why sadness matters


For the last 50 years or so, Western society has sold to us a very particular ideology on how to live a meaningful life: the happiness of the individual is the ultimate goal and purpose of life, and if you aren't happy then you should try harder or take a pill that will make you so.

Not only are we sold this expectation that we should always be happy, we're also made to believe that if we aren’t, it’s our own fault, and there's something wrong with us. If you want something, says the prevailing ethos, just roll up your sleeves and go get it! But how realistic is this existential expectation? To me, not very, and it's my hunch that most people understand this too: it's an impossible task - we simply can't always be happy. To add to this reality, sometimes when we try to achieve, and do everything right, we still fail. For this, we are made to feel bad, made to feel that failure is both disgusting and that it's our own fault. With this as the bedrock of today's unsustainable value system, the lie of meritocracy is plain to see: there's just not enough mansions in Beverly Hills for all of us hard-working folk to buy with our 'merit points', and not enough hours in the day when we can truly be 'happy'.

In reality, no matter how hard we try, much of what we achieve is based on luck, who we know, and other socio-economic and identity-politic structures. Sure, working hard is its own reward, but current attitudes tell us this is not enough, and we must keep up or do better than the Jones'. But the deck is stacked, and it often doesn't work out that way for the most of us. What's more, if we believe we should always succeed, we only set ourselves up for failure, and are pushed to blame ourselves when we find we haven't got a swimming pool in our backyard like the American dream promised.

In all of this focus on merit and personal happiness as the be-all and end-all of human life, there's another truism we've seemed to have forgotten in our plastic age of individuality; it's not good to be happy all the time, and it's not so terrible when things don't go our way. In fact, most ancient and not so ancient philosophies from the East and West have been arguing for centuries that it's actually mostly through struggle and hardship that we find true meaning, purpose and contentment in our lives.

Whereas our modern ideas of happiness and purpose necessarily leads to feelings of envy and low self esteem (if everyone expects to achieve everything, everyone will be unsatisfied with the results bestowed by reality), the counter argument is a lot more sound: life is a yin yang of joy and sorrow, of hardship and reward, of happiness and sadness. If we think everything is supposed to go right, we'll get really upset when things go wrong. But if we realize nothing is supposed to 'go right', then it frames our perspective when things 'go wrong'.

Optimism is nice, but too much of it makes us angry when the world doesn't cooperate with our desires. As Alain du Botton, the British philosopher suggests, 'we live on unstable ground and should expect this – bad things are written into the contract of life.' To this end, contentment is a better goal than happiness. What is the difference between the two? It's all in our outlook: contentment encompasses both happiness and sadness, both joy and pain. One can still be content even if they're not 'happy', one can accept and even embrace the highs and lows of life within such a context. From this expectation and worldview, it is easier to see that happiness is 1/2 the puzzle, a yin without a yang. Laughing is only nice because we know about crying. Experiencing sadness helps us appreciate our good moments. Sadness gives meaning to our lives. This change in philosophy helps make it apparent that demanding happiness all the time doesn't make sense, doesn't complete a person, and keeps us from being the whole human that we are capable of being.

So what to do? For starters, we should reassess our relationship to the unpleasant side of life: even try to embrace sadness and existential concern. Arguable, our best insights come to us when we're feeling bad but able to endure suffering. So choose contentment over happiness. Struggle, and we shall succeed – if we pick up a load that’s just heavy enough to bare, meaning and purpose are sure to follow.

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