Happiness is being content with what you have in your life. It comes down to two different types of contentment. The first type is a material happiness that comes from material things including food, shelter, clothing, cars, technological devices and anything else that that physically exists and is an object of desire. The second type of happiness is much more abstract; it is a kind of spiritual or natural happiness. It comes from being at peace or from achieving a state of inner contentment. As the saying goes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and it is my belief that only through a perfect balance of these two sources of happiness can one be truly happy, which is, in a way, to be content.
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The fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso speaks of happiness in much the same way. When asked by Howard Cutler to speak about desire, the Dalai Lama replies, “I think there are two kinds of desire” (Cutler 1000). The Dalai Lama says of the material desire I previously identified: “aˆ¦I think that this kind of excessive desire leads to greed-an exaggerated form of desire, based on over expectation.” He goes on to say, “When it comes to dealing with greed, one thing that is quite characteristic is that although it arrives by the desire to obtain something, it is not satisfied by obtaining” (Cutler 1001). I completely agree with him on this point, that material desire can become excessive and lead to insatiable greed. However, it is my belief that happiness comes from fulfilling desire, which is, in part, fulfilling superficial material desire. But that is not all that constitutes happiness. As the Dalai Lama says, “The true antidote of greed is contentment. If you have a strong sense of contentment, it doesn’t matter whether you obtain the object or not; either way, you are still content” (Cutler 1002). This kind of inner contentment comes about through the second type of happiness I spoke of, the spiritual or natural happiness.
Natural happiness or inner contentment is a rather difficult thing to explain, as it is a very abstract idea. Inner contentment cannot be found through material things. It comes from oneself, from one making peace with what they have and understanding that they cannot have everything. Howard Cutler, the Dalai Lama’s companion, asks “aˆ¦How can we achieve inner contentment? There are two methods. One method is to obtain everything we want and desireaˆ¦ The second, and more reliable, method is not to have what we want but rather to want and appreciate what we have” (Cutler 1002). It would seem that Cutler, the Dalai Lama, and I share many of the same views. Inner contentment itself comes from making peace with what we already have, moving past the desire of wanting material things.
However, it should be made clear that we are discussing happiness, not contentment. Contentment, inner contentment, certainly comes from achieving a peace with what one has and accepting that one can’t have everything. But that is only contentment. True happiness comes from a balance of both contentment and desire. It comes from striking a balance between the two methods of achieving inner contentment.
But this is only one person’s happiness. Philosophers such as Epictetus would argue that “happiness” does not come about through these methods. Epictetus taught that: “The goal of life is ‘happiness’ or ‘flourishing life.’ The way to achieve this condition is to understand the nature of the good” (Barnet and Bedau 995). He argued that “The only true good is virtue. Yes, wealth can be useful, but it is not good or badaˆ¦ Povertyaˆ¦ is not bad but is morally indifferent (just as wealth is morally indifferent)aˆ¦ The life that is happy or fruitful is the virtuous life” (Barnet and Bedau 995). Epictetus was likely speaking about happiness as a whole or happiness for the greater good. One person’s happiness may not be the same as another’s, but I agree with Epictetus that happiness comes about through living a virtuous life. I would call this version of happiness a “worldly contentment.” This is, of course, different from the “inner contentment” previously discussed.
Daniel Gilbert adds onto this idea of contentment. In his essay ‘Does Fatherhood Make You Happy?’ he explains that having children generally makes a parent happy. “Psychologists have measured how people feel as they go about their daily activities, and have found that people are less happy when they are interacting with their children than when they are eating, exercising, shopping or watching television” (Gilbert 985). He starts off by stating how studies have shown that parents become less happy when they have children around them and how they would rather be spending time doing other things to make them happy, but later counters this idea with his reasons from personal experience.
“First, when something makes us happy we are willing to pay a lot for it, which is why the worst Belgian chocolate is more expensive than the best Belgian tofu. But that process can work in reverse: when we pay a lot for something, we assume it makes us happy, which is why we swear to the wonders of bottled water and Armani socks” (Gilbert 985). Gilbert brings toward a materialistic view very similar to the Dalai Lamas’. We are willing to sacrifice for material wants and desires but only true happiness lies in contentment.
Gilbert compares children to heroin, while it may seem irrational his points are made clear. Children give parents a feeling of pleasure that makes them forget everything else around them. “The analogy to children is all too clear. Even if their company were an unremitting pleasure, the fact that they require so much company means that other sources of pleasure will all but disappear” (Gilbert 986). I interpret this as another form of contentment. Because of how satisfying it is to have children, it makes a parent content that they don’t need anything else.
Lewis proposes a countercultural idea, that we actually have no ‘right to happiness.’ Some people believe that happiness is a right and is supposed to be given out, or is required to be provided by the government, like a right. In all reality that is true, but to an extent, we do have a right to happiness; we also have a right to earn happiness. We are all provided with the resources to do so. As in all rights we are provided with there still is some kind of boundary.
“If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behavior, we do so not because of what out passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it” (Lewis 1006). Lewis would say that pursuing happiness is alright as long as you are within legal and moral laws. In other words, living a good life is a means to pursue happiness.
Thus the question of “what is happiness” can be defined in multiple ways. For one person, it is through achieving a state of inner contentment through finding a balance between material desire of what one does not have and a desire of what one already has. In the context of worldly or societal happiness, happiness is found through living a life of virtue and thus being fulfilled, or finding contentment, in that manner. Happiness is all of these things.
Happiness, however, isn’t a destination to reach. It’s a perception, a mindset. There are those that believe that people are born with this mindset. There are others who believe that each of us can achieve this perception merely by redirecting our thoughts. Both are true. Sometimes it takes a really stressful event to make us realize how grateful we are for what we have rather than desiring what we don’t have. The secret to happiness is contentment; a still point of realization that happiness is found within, not through external measures and possessions. Contentment is more than being grateful for the small things in life, it is being grateful for simply being. Contentment is a song the heart sings in the quiet moments of the day. Can you hear it?