Friday, March 14, 2014

Happiness, Contentment, and Why We Need Philosophies of Life

Contentment. This word, to many people, is pretty negative. Who just wants to be content with life, after all? Wouldn't we want a happy life?

Well, of course we do. But here's the thing: how does one define a happy life? For that matter, how do we define happy? What's so great about happiness and what, exactly, makes it so different from contentment?

Though I consider myself a philosopher, I admit that I have a tough time even starting a line of reasoning on this. But I never took the time to write it down, either. So, here's my attempt to figure out which is better, or perhaps even the same: happiness or contentment.

Let's take the perhaps too obvious of a route and look at what these words mean. I'm using the New Oxford American Dictionary, located on my Kindle.

First, happiness, which takes me to happy: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.

Well, that seems to about settle it, wouldn't it? Happiness is a condition of contentment, not outside of it! Oh, but that seems a little too easy, doesn't it?

Contentment: a state of happiness and satisfaction.

Huh? So, both words use each other in their meaning. Oh, and so we don't get any detractors on the subject, I was able to look up happiness itself and got "the state of being happy."

Content: in a state of peaceful happiness.

Holy crow, are these two words so close that they define each other? Well, okay, they don't define each other. The dictionary is clear: happiness is a condition of contentment, in other words, you can't be content if you aren't happy.

We *could* stop here. But I know that some people wouldn't be happy (see what I did there?) if we said the dictionary was the only place to get a word's meaning. After all, what about *connotative* meaning, how words make people feel? I haven't asked many people but contentment is the same as settling, a kind of resignation. Happiness is embracing of life, enjoying it to the fullest. But let's think about this: what makes people happy? According to the documentary Happy, it isn't what most people think.

According to research presented in this film, half of our happiness comes from genetics! Well, okay, baseline happiness comes from genetics. So, yes, it's true. Some people are naturally happier than others. Anyway, baseline happiness is our default. Elation or depression, this is where our happiness levels will go over time and will naturally stay.

Now, 10% of our happiness is what most people are told will make them a lot happier: money, status, things of that nature. Think about that. We're often told that these things are what will make us the happiest, yet it only makes up 10% of our happiness. That means whatever has most of us in the dumps, odds are, it isn't this stuff. So where's the rest of our happiness come from?

An astounding 40% of our happiness comes from  "intentional actions". Simply put, what we do in life makes up nearly the other half of our happiness. And I think this is important. It is our intentional actions where the second half of the equation comes in: satisfaction with life.

Here's how I see it. A person ignoring doing anything other than making money unhappier than the person not making as much but loves what they do. It is by doing what we love that makes us not only pleased with life, but satisfied with life, that is, leads to a contented life. Our feelings of a contented life seem misplaced. When people say they want a happy life, what they  mean is they want a contented one. After all, how many people do you know who're happy but unsatisfied, wanting more? Yet can a person satisfied with life but be unhappy with it? Doubtful.

This might seem like sloppy science to some, perhaps even verboten. Given that humanity has been asking what makes us happy since the beginning, it seems odd to have an answer. Or maybe you'll be like me and think, Hell, do what you want to do to live a happy life? I already knew that! How can we get there?

Well, we can get there pretty easy. And that's what we need philosophies of life.

I'll grant you, many of the old schools of philosophy taught us not to focus on material things. It's that 40% everyone divides on. Cynics say we should pursue a life that avoids the material, perhaps become beggars. Epicureans would say that we should aim for pleasure, rooted in modesty and avoid pain. Stoics, well, you have to go get virtue into your life.

Now, sometimes you can get some exact details on how we should live our lives. Rufus, for example, said we should marry and have children. But for the most part, by following a philosophy of life, we can establish what kind of actions we should take in our lives. While there seems to be a lot of wiggle room in this, that's sort of the point. We have to think about what we do. While it could be easier to be told what to do, there is more happiness and satisfaction when we come to these conclusions ourselves.

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