Contentment and Joy

I’ve been reading a lot recently about happiness — not because I’m researching the topic, but because a lot of people seem to be writing about it, and I run across the articles. For example, the Mayo Clinic has a page called How to be Happy, subtitled “Tips for Cultivating Contentment.” There are books being written about happiness, TED talks being given about it.

These articles bother me, I suppose in part because they seem to confuse what I think are two distinct feelings: contentment and joy. The Mayo Clinic article uses the terms interchangeably. But I think they really are quite different, and happiness is a sort of general category that can encompass both.

Contentment is the feeling of being peaceful, satisfied with your circumstances. I feel content when I lie in bed on a Saturday morning and look out my window at the sky, knowing that I have a whole weekend ahead of me. It’s the feeling of not wanting things to change, because the present moment is enough. It’s the feeling of living in the present, which is what Buddhism teaches us to do. Of not desiring anything else. Contentment is essentially static.

I was wondering what pictures to include with this blog post, and I decided to take photographs of the two front corners of my apartment. This is the left corner. You can see a drawing of a tree in a field, by my grandmother. Above it is a fantasy print. And hanging from a bracket is my birdcage, with two birds (not real, of course, although they have real feathers) on the outside. I don’t put birds in cages — not even artificial ones!

In the right front corner you can see the prints I’ve put up recently — one matches the print on the left, and I just remembered that they are by Amy Brown. The watercolors are by my grandmother, and I bought the print of the green girl at Wiscon. It’s by Samantha Haney. If you want a copy of it yourself, you can find it right here: “Green Girl.” The artist’s contact information is on her website. You can also see the bed curtain I created, which I’m very happy with! (Every bed should have curtains, no matter how rudimentary.)

Living in spaces like this makes me content. Creating spaces like this gives me joy.

Joy is not contentment. It’s caused by action, change. Joy can be the result of dissatisfaction: indeed, perhaps it requires dissatisfaction. I am dissatisfied, I change something, I create — and then I feel a sense of joy. Unlike contentment, joy does not stay. It is fleeting, but it can come back. Contentment feels like swimming in a warm lake. Joy feels like standing on top of a high mountain, breathing clear, cold air. Joy is exhilarating, like a sweet, strong wine — like a Tokay. It makes you feel sharper, more aware. It can be almost painful.

If I had to choose between contentment and joy, I would take joy. But of course I want both. All the articles I’ve read on happiness seem to focus on contentment. I think it’s time they started talking about joy as well.

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2 Responses to Contentment and Joy

  1. It’s tricky to write an article about how to be joyful, because joy is so specific, not only to the person, but also to the situation. It’s a lot easier to reproduce contentment, and a lot easier to provide general advice on how to do so.

    I read a book a while back on how to be happy. It focused on balancing what it called hedonism (by which it meant the foolish, short-sighted hedonism of always doing whatever would bring the most pleasure this moment) with the “rat race” strategy of always deferring possible present happiness in favor of greater future happiness. I wrote a review of the book here ( ), but the gist of it that goals are reason for deferring pleasure, so choosing the right goals is key to achieving maximum happiness.

  2. Mare says:

    Great post! I am thinking now…..about what you’ve said. Deeply contemplating.

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