Will my family be alright? Will I be all right? When will this end? Will it end? And if it does, will life ever be as it was?
This staccato burst of angst, written by Dan Barry in The New York Times, captures how many of us are feeling these days. We want to be optimistic that life will soon return to a state resembling normal, only to realize that (in the US) there are still 2,000 people dying of Covid-19 each day and there is talk of an even more lethal wave of the virus arriving in the fall. It got me thinking:
What does being “happy” means these days? Can we achieve happiness despite Covid-19?
Moments of sheer joy or bliss seem fleeting these days. Yet there’s a variation of happiness that is well within our reach: Contentment. You may think I’m splitting hairs here, so let me explain. Do a quick Google search of contentment and you’ll see it defined as “happy and satisfied.” But do a deeper dive and you’ll find a more expansive definition, like this one on Wikipedia:
Contentment is an emotional state of satisfaction that can be seen as a mental state, maybe drawn from being at ease in one’s situation, body and mind. Colloquially speaking, contentment could be a state of having accepted one’s situation and is a milder and more tentative form of happiness.
For me, the visual representation of contentment is the classic Buddha figure, with his calm looking demeanor and hint of a smile. I have several Buddha statues around my home and yard and they serve as centering mechanisms, constant reminders to chillax. Take a breath. Just be.
One good thing about contentment: it has staying power. It endures. Happiness comes and goes, contentment sticks around for a while. Though our outside circumstances may change, when we’re content, we remain calm and centered. We are at peace with the world, no matter what comes our way. To quote Rudyard Kipling, we “meet triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.” The outside world doesn’t affect us inside.
How do you get to a state of contentment? The usual suspects, the activities that help us become grounded. Meditation. Yoga. Centering prayer. A walk in the park. Spending quality time with your cat. Engaging in a regular morning practice. By taking the necessary steps, we can start the day with a contented state-of-mind and then, by taking moments to recharge throughout the day, maintain our contentment until bedtime.
Happiness may also depend on our point-of-view.
A few years ago, in a story titled “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” at Scientific American, social psychologist Jennifer Aaker pointed out that our perception of happiness varies according to where in the world we live.
Aaker says that studies show “the desire for personal happiness, though knitted into the fabric of American history and culture, is held in less esteem by other cultures.” It seems there are many parts of the world that view personal happiness, defined as “experiencing pleasure, positive emotion, or success”, with suspicion.
When Taiwanese and American students were asked about the meaning of happiness, American participants considered happiness to be the supreme goal of their lives, a primary reason for their existence. But Taiwanese participants placed an emphasis on “attainment of social harmony” or a sense of community and belonging.
Aaker wonders if we, in America, don’t have our priorities out of whack, focusing too much on the self and our own personal happiness. In her words:
Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others. In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on a balanced, meaningful life focused on others.
These words seem truer today than ever. Maybe true happiness is not found in our own self-serving pursuits. Maybe we should consider devoting ourselves to the happiness of others. Maybe when we turn our attention to others, we arrive at our own place of contentment.
There was a short essay by Angela Jimenez in The New York Times recently, about her life in quarantine with her partner and children. She may have nailed what happiness, or contentment, looks like today. It’s what happens when we discover that our own well-being is often anchored in the small pleasures we share with others. Jimenez writes:
We are grateful to be healthy and have food and this roof over our heads. We find joy in little moments, in tiny dolls and paintbrushes, in these few hands that we can still hold, and in spurts of sunshine that promise spring will come anyway.
I hope you are finding “joy in little moments” these days, as well. It’s a key to contentment.