Happiness vs. Contentment
The word ‘happiness’ in present times refers to an emotional state where a person is at least mildly elated. This emotion is usually visualized as a person smiling or laughing. Meanwhile, the word ‘contentment’ has two different meanings, both closely associated with each other. The first meaning (let’s called this ‘strict’ contentment) refers to a person in a state of affairs where he is satisfied. There are no demands on him or hurdles he must overcome: he has achieved whatever ends he has and does not have any others (or any significant others). The second meaning (let’s called this emotional contentment) refers to an emotional state at neutrality or somewhere in between neutrality and happiness. To clarify the difference between the two types of contentment, we can understand that feeling satisfied is not the same thing as being satisfied, although the two are often (and for good reason) correlated.
The reason I bring up these distinctions is because I am currently reading The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, in which the differences between happiness, emotional contentment, and strict contentment are muddled, possibly misleading readers. The pair argue in the first chapter that the purpose of life is happiness:
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness . . . [emphasis added]
It is true that we are all seeking something better in our life. All our purposeful actions are directed to change a state of affairs that would have occurred in the future into an alternative, better state of affairs. However, this doesn’t mean that in seeking a better state of affairs we are necessarily seeking an emotional state of happiness. For example, if I take the purposeful action of putting some food into my mouth, I am doing so to satisfy my hunger. This may or may not make me happy. I might in fact be annoyed and angry because I know the food will taste bad, but eat it anyway so I don’t starve. Therefore, my purpose in eating poor-tasting food isn’t to make myself elated emotionally, but to simply quell my hunger. So here, happiness and emotional contentment are not the goals, but strict contentment is.
Another example: suppose you have had huge goals for several years and you’ve finally accomplished all that you set out to accomplish. At first you may be ecstatic, but if as time goes on, you fail to add any other monumental goals to your life, you may end up being depressed. In this example, while your initial end was to accomplish your goals and satisfy yourself for strict contentment, you ended up upset as a result.
So while strict contentment, which is what really follows from D.C.’s (Dalai Lama + Cutler) argument, is occasionally associated with happiness and emotional contentment, it is not always, and is sometimes even associated with depression. Happiness is not the purpose of life, and even if it was, this argument would not be a good one for it.
The reason the criticism I have made is important is that readers of this book may come to agreement (with the flawed argument) that the purpose of life is happiness and, as a result, constantly seek out an elated emotion that is not always possible to achieve. Human beings are not perpetually jubilant creatures. With this in mind, then, having a purpose of happiness can ironically lead to its opposite. Since it is not always possible to attain, individuals who have it as their purpose will instead be sad when they realize they just don’t feel the way they want to feel.