Happy or contented
I was recently asked by someone whether it was possible to be really happy. This question sparked a conversation about the difference between happiness and contentment.
The timing of this conversation couldn’t have been better, as being almost 2½ years into the COVID-19 global pandemic has me feeling quite jaded as a leader and struggling to find all that much to be happy about. My discussions with myself over the last few months found an opportunity to be aired with another; as I always say, we’re better, together.
Of course, it might be difficult to immediately differentiate between the exact meanings of happiness and contentment, so let me define my understanding from living through the ups and downs of life over the last five decades.
Finding an accurate definition of happiness is problematic. Obviously the best way to get definitive clarity these days is to search online, ‘What is it to be happy?’ A summary of the multiplicity of responses could be, Happiness is an emotional state characterised by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment. While happiness has many different definitions, it is often described as involving positive emotions and life satisfaction.
On further reflection, and from observation and experience, I think being happy is something that is often determined by our cultural context and not something we determine for ourselves. For example, if you’re a millennial in New Zealand, you’ll often only describe yourself as being happy when you’ve acquired some of the culturally imposed standards of what happiness looks like, loosely described as being successful (earning good money), owning your own home (or a small part thereof) and being in a stable relationship. These are the outward signs of being happy, although even with these cultural acquisitions, most people wouldn’t describe themselves as being happy until they’ve reached the next stage of cultural inclusion, which is ‘just a little bit more’, and on that revolving process goes.
I would suggest that contentment on the other hand is something much deeper that is not determined by assets, money, or relationships (although I have a rider here*).
To summarise again the different definitions that one finds in an online search, contentment could be described as being, What it means to be happy with what you have, who you are, and where you are. It is respecting the reality of the present. It is appreciating what you do have and where you are in life.
The subtle differences between happiness and contentment should be obvious – while happiness revolves around aspects that are external and acquired, contentment revolves around aspects that are internal, and … internal.
Admittedly, contentment may require a lot more work to achieve, but it is infinitely more beneficial to healthy living.
Contentment in the Bible
Several years ago, I was watching the Fiji 7’s team playing in Hong Kong. I noticed that on their sleeves was written ‘Phil 4:13’ which set me off on a journey of learning about contentment. When I opened by Bible I saw that the verse said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I wondered whether that meant that if they had Christ, they would win. Which they didn’t.
My journey in reading Scripture with a wider lens had begun.
The long passage that concludes with Verse 13 says, I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
The author, Paul, was saying that because of the strength that Christ gives him, he can be content, whatever the circumstances.
It was a lightbulb moment for me. An ‘ah ha’ moment. A kairos season.
The rider: Jesus
Back to my rider above. Philippians 4, chapter 3, verses 10-13 say to us that when we know who we are in Christ, when we know we are loved, valued, and accepted, when we know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we can be content, even if we haven’t achieved the success and status our culture demands. These verses say that even if we’re in need, effectively even if life isn’t what we imagined it to be, we can still be content.
To my friend who asked me about whether it was possible to be really happy, I said it’s better to search after contentment, as that will sustain and enrich your life in a way that the search for happiness will not.
The key phrase for me in the Philippians passage is, I have learned. Even Paul had to take his time to learn about contentment. That is so relatable, because I’ve been learning this lesson for quite a while now. I’m still learning.
May we all continue to learn the joy of contentment – made possible because of Jesus and the testimony of his followers.
Contentment is such a happy place to be.
Grant Harris is a reformed banker who has been the Senior Pastor of Windsor Park Baptist Church in Auckland, New Zealand, for eleven years. Grant’s passionate about seeing people catch a glimpse of who they are in Christ and living out the difference that makes. He’s tried living according to the patterns of this world and found that those patterns came up short. He’s still a work-in-progress and always will be. You can contact Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.