Quoterday – Finding Happiness Through Contentedness

Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.

-Jonathan Haidt – The Happiness Hypothesis

“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so.”

I can see the criticism now.

“Yeah, but what about people living with objectively horrific circumstances?”

“It’s easy to say that as a white man with a privileged upper-middle class background.”

To both statements, I agree.

I would never assert that refugee families fleeing war-torn nations can simply “think themselves happy” by “focusing on the positive.”

However, I appreciate the idea that misery is one step removed from direct experience.  It’s a judgment, not an objective reality.  While some people have more difficult circumstances than others, one cannot feel miserable until they appraise their state of mind and perform mental calculus that outputs the resulting thought of “I am miserable.”

Some people may have an easier time producing a negative conclusion.  Others may find it impossible to avoid such conclusions.  But it is an opinion nonetheless.  Our interpretation of our circumstances is a more powerful source of well-being than the circumstances themselves.

Leading happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in her book The How of Happiness that an individual’s happiness is 50% genetic, 10% circumstantial, and 40% mental.

I interpret that 10% as an account of basic needs.  Happiness is difficult when food, shelter, and personal safety are in doubt.

But once people find stable sources of food, housing, and safety, then our happiness depends not on our circumstances, but our relationship with those circumstances.

In short, do we spend more time lamenting on what is missing, or appreciating what is there?

What is longer – our list of goals and wishes or our list of gratitude?

The first part of Haidt’s statement may crumble at the extreme low-end of the circumstances spectrum.  However, the latter part of his statement is upwardly boundless.

“Nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”

Similar to misery, happiness is also one-step removed from objective experience and circumstance.  In other words, being happy requires the thought “I am happy” to cross our minds.

While it is true that our happiest moments often come when we are absorbed in the present, that judgment still requires a cognitive appraisal.

What does it mean for this statement to have no upward boundary?

It means that no amount of money, houses, cars, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, perfect children, wonderful jobs, dream vacations, or endless leisure time can make us happy unless we take the time to appreciate it.

This can be difficult for Type A, ambitious people.  It can become easy to ignore our many sources of gratitude while looking ahead towards our goals – what we want to accomplish – what we don’t have as of now.

“I cannot be content.  Contentedness is complacency.”

“If I’m not hustling, then I’m falling behind.”

“Why worry about my strengths?  I should fix my flaws.”

Don’t get me wrong.  It is great to level up in life.  In fact, growth is a powerful source of satisfaction for many people.  However, growth can only satisfy us if it is anchored.

What do I mean?

I mean growth is only meaningful to us when we can compare it to where we were before (e.g. an anchor).

When I watch Youtubers with powerful streams of passive income, I can feel a bit inferior.  My job is my sole source of income.

But this job gives me health coverage, a paid pension, and a rent-free apartment.  I feel extremely fortunate.

Sometimes I consider the person I was 8 years ago – 20 years old, shuffling between next-to-minimum wage jobs, subsisting on Del Taco, McDonald’s, and Little Ceasar’s Pizza, living in an apartment with no internet access, a mattress on the floor, and a persistent drinking problem.

My knowledge of the world, my life mindsets, and my emotional intelligence and resilience have grown since then.  For that, I am grateful.  And when I feel grateful, I feel happy.

“Nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”

We live in a hyper-connected social media-infused world where advertisers and influencers aim to convince us that our lives are incomplete.  It is difficult not to take the bait once in a while.

While nothing is wrong with striving to do better each and every day, we should never forget to slow down, count our blessings, and remember to be happy.

Sipping a 7-Eleven Americano and reading my Kindle makes me happy.  It’s a wonderful way to relax before trotting off to work.

 

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