Happiness is that feeling we get when we experience intense joy, fulfillment and love. Like other emotions, the feeling of happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes, often leaving us wishing it had stayed with us longer. Happiness is a peak emotion and an impermanent one at that. There’s a visual I like to use when explaining the difference between happiness and contentment: Where happiness is the crest of a wave, contentment is a raft. Cultivating an inner wealth of contentment will sail us through the stormy ups and downs of our emotional waves.
On the surface, contentment (also called santosha in Sanskrit) doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as happiness. That's because happiness is a high and we feel intensely alive for the moment it lasts. Contentment, by contrast, sounds boring. Who wants to settle for being merely content? Isn’t there more to life? Don’t we want to get the most out of our time on this planet? Of course we do, and as far as goals go, it’s a good one to have. Who doesn’t want to be happy, right?
When we learn to master the art of contentment, whether or not we are rich or poor, famous or infamous, young or old, we will still be able to find peace within our present circumstances. By cultivating contentment, we gain access to an infinite source of inner strength. It is from here that we can draw a sense of profound satisfaction, one which we can mold our happiness out of, like the potter crafts a bowl from a lump of raw clay. The beauty of contentment is that it is completely self-generated. It’s a cultivated attitude, not an emotion. It’s a choice, not a feeling, and, as such, we are not subject to its whims. We don’t have much control over when happiness appears in our lives; like lady luck, happiness can be a fickle mistress. Contentment, however, is rock solid. It's also something we can learn to foster in our lives. Like all art forms, contentment comes through a willingness and openness to practice it daily. There are many ways to cultivate contentment, from contemplative practices to keeping a gratitude journal. (Learn more in Why Contemplate?)
One of the most powerful ways to foster contentment is by simply learning to watch our mind. By watching the mind, we can begin to notice the moments in which desire kicks in. The instant it does, look for that undercurrent of thinking, like soft whispering, that what you have is not enough. Challenge the thought. Do I really need more? If all else fails, refer to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and start at the bottom of the pyramid with physiological needs. Am I hungry? Do I need shelter from the cold? Then work yourself up to safety needs, social needs and so on. Think of all the ways in which you are lucky and blessed. Think of all the things you are grateful for and use those to drown out your desire. Recognize that dissatisfaction is a type of suffering. (Learn more about the Roots of Suffering.)
In Buddhist philosophical terms, all suffering falls under the umbrella of dukkha. Dukkha is the first of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha explained it simply as the attachment and craving of impermanent things and conditions. When we cling to our youth, despite the inevitability of aging, we suffer. When we are attached to our health and we become sick, unable to do the things we once enjoyed, we suffer. When our loved ones die, we suffer. In effect, anytime there is a change in our situation that differs from our preconceived notion of how things should be, we suffer. Happiness is as elusive and trying to hold onto happiness never works because, like every other changing state, it is impermanent. This is the main reason to skip looking outside ourselves for happiness as though it were a fixed destination.
At its heart, contentment is about recognizing that true serenity comes from a set of internal conditions and not through our outer circumstances. The destination is the here and now. By tapping into the moment and relinquishing our attachments (raaga) and aversions (dvesha), we can fall effortlessly into the stream of contentment. (Read on in The Wisdom of Non-Attachment.)