No, this doesn’t mean that misery is the answer. What this means is that pursuing happiness as a strategy for human well-being is not the ticket many people think it is. There are other ways to build a life of wellness that take a different approach. I’ve been researching these strategies for years.
A breakthrough came in 2014, when my research team was studying a remote group of former nomads high in the Himalayas of Eastern Bhutan. No outsider had traveled there before, and we were about to reach one of the three last uncontacted villages on Earth. We traveled through the jungle, hiked down a mountain, forded a river, and then hiked up another mountain to a settlement of about 200 families.
We conducted the final piece of a five-year study to identify the human emotions that are universal across cultures. We brought a list of 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, Internet, cellphones or printed media — nothing.
Incredibly, when we showed the villagers dozens of facial and vocal expressions, they recognized the majority of them. But there was one emotion that was prized above all the others: contentment.
Our guide and translator, Dorji Wangchuk, explained their idea of contentment: “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.”
“It basically means that right here, right now, everything is perfect as it is, regardless of what you are experiencing outside,” he said.
And it hit me — no matter where I went across the globe, all of the cultures I interacted with believed passionately in contentment. Yet here, we were obsessing about happiness, and feeling more anxious, depressed and stressed. I decided to investigate.
Contentment vs. happiness
At Yale University, my research team dove into more than 5,000 years of human philosophy and 200 years of scientific research into the nature of the mind. Two strategies emerged that people 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 from the outside world. If I offered you $1,000 right now, I’m sure you would be very happy. But studies show that as soon as you put the money into your pocket, the happiness begins to diminish, and shortly you’ll find yourself needing another hit.
There’s nothing wrong with temporary boosts, but the problem with the More Strategy is that it’s not sustainable.
The second is the “Enough Strategy.” While sifting through thousands of years of ancient wisdom traditions, we found the ancients almost never used the word happiness when talking about a good life. They used the word contentment, and described it as a state of “unconditional wholeness,” regardless of what is happening externally.
They believe we can feel contentment even when our external environment is complete chaos.
This doesn’t mean accepting injustices or the status quo. By all means, we need to work for what we feel is right, especially in these difficult times. But think of the unflinching calm of a Formula One driver taking a corner at 180 mph, or the feeling of wholeness when the family is around the dinner table together, even if the kids are fighting again.
How to cultivate contentment
The value to contentment is that nobody can take it away from us, and nobody can give it to us, either.
There are many practices that help cultivate contentment, as evidenced by hundreds of scientific studies. They usually just take a small bit of time during your day to find some peace and silence.
Mindfulness. This may not surprise you, because everyone from doctors to athletes to Oprah has endorsed it over the past few decades. Mindfulness is 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 to help. Notice how you feel while practicing mindfulness, even for a short while. Do things feel a little bit more okay than they were a few minutes ago? That’s contentment.
Identify your well-being contingencies. A well-being contingency is an external factor that you believe is required to feel complete. Some common ones:
- When I have $X in my bank account, then I’ll be happy.
- When I’m X years old, I can retire and enjoy life.
- When my kids achieve X, I’ll know I was a successful parent.
It’s good to have goals, but 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 okay right now.
You probably have a few of these running in the background of your subconscious mind. It may be time to let go of the ones that are causing you trouble.
Radically accept all emotions. There are few guarantees in life, but one that I can offer with certainty is that whatever you are feeling right now is going to change soon. By definition, emotions have a life span. They have triggers, they rise to their apex like a wave, and then they gently taper away before being replaced by a new emotion. This is part of what it means to be human.
The problem arises when we hold onto emotions with a white-knuckle death grip — emotions like happiness, elation, serenity and other really pleasant feelings. There are other emotions we despise so much that we would prefer to never feel them again — shame, sadness, despair, embarrassment and rage.
It turns out that all emotions are here to provide valuable information about the world around us. What if, instead of trying to cling to some emotions while pushing others away, you allowed all feelings to come and go?
This radical appreciation of all of life’s experiences is a cornerstone to contentment. That means we can respect our sadness, anger and shame. We can be content with our elation, joy, and peace — and everything in between. Contentment is the underlying acceptance of what it means to be human.
Daniel Cordaro is the founder and CEO of the Contentment Foundation, which provides well-being programming for schools, families and companies around the world. Instagram: @contentmentorg