Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Difference Between Contentment & Happiness

I'm figuring some of this out as I write, so there's no way this post represents a definitive line of thinking. I only know that the difference between happiness and contentment has increasingly recurred as a theme in my Zen studies and that understanding the difference between the two is important in getting to, and maintaining, right-mindedness.

In various places on Zen Throw Down I've drawn a distinction between happiness and contentment. While I love happiness and joy (and who doesn't?), I've come to understand that it's much wiser to seek contentment than happiness. This is mainly because contentment requires no striving and can be maintained in a world that is full of suffering. On the other hand, happiness constantly demands effort to obtain, disappears all too easily, and/or is merely a mirage on the horizon that beckons without getting closer.

This view of happiness runs counter to how many of us are raised. For example, in the United States the "pursuit of happiness" is inherently woven into our national identity. Cultures may differ, but the desire for happiness seems universal. Zen Buddhism, however, teaches us that happiness is something to cherish when one has it...but that one should never cling to it, mourn when we inevitably lose it, or chase after it.

I suppose what kicked off my thinking about happiness versus contentment was a common thread in the marketing on some book jackets, promotion fliers, or websites about Zen Buddhism, meditation, or self-help. These marketing efforts often contain blurbs or catch-phrases suggesting someone can help us "find happiness" or "achieve inner peace" or something of the sort. Personally I've always distrusted anyone who dangles happiness before me like a carrot, and one of the first things I learned in my Zen studies is that my state of mind is largely (or entirely) of my own making. That includes my happiness and suffering. No one can give me happiness.

Memes are not wisdom
Since we are largely responsible for the reality we face and our emotions about it, that means no one can give of us a path to happiness. Even if such a path existed, a person can't be made to consistently walk it or to keep from straying in response to the distractions faced in day-to-day living. Similarly, we can't be handed or told any knowledge that is a "secret" of being happy. Even if such knowledge existed, it wouldn't help us for the same reason that memes like this one posted on Facebook are nice but useless. We read them, smile and nod at the wisdom they contain, and then go right back to living our lives the way we did before. For knowledge to useful, it must be learned. Even when it is learned, we will not profit from it unless we put it into practice during everyday life. Without practice, knowledge is useless.

Lastly, and most importantly, one can't be taught to be happy because happiness itself is a temporary condition. No one can maintain it no matter what they are taught. In Zen Buddhism we are taught that all beings suffer; it is simply part of life. So it is foolish to cling to happiness or to try avoiding all suffering because we cannot maintain the one or avoid the other. Further, both states are temporary. We are happy until something goes amiss, and then we suffer. We suffer until things start going our way again, and then we are happy.

This circle of joy and suffering drags most people into a deluded mindstate, as they spend all their energy trying to evade suffering or to capture happiness. This is all wasted energy because no matter how happy we become, suffering will always eventually come back to us. In short, trying to maintain happiness as a permanent state is like trying - to quote a lyric from The Sound of Music - "to keep a wave upon the sand." We waste our time and energy running around in this circle.

This is why contentment is a better goal that happiness. While happiness is the absence of suffering, contentment allows for suffering. To explain what is meant by this, imagine a time when you were suffering. It's unlikely you could have said to yourself: "Everything is so awful, but I'm happy anyway!" (If you could say this, then it's questionable whether you were really suffering!). However, it's totally possible - especially from within a disciplined, centered mindstate - to be unhappy and yet to be content on some level.

We can be content even when we suffer because, despite the pain or sadness or anxiety we feel we can look at ourselves in the current moment and know that we're okay. We may not be happy, but we are able to let things slide off our backs and be patient with ourselves.

And this is the crux of the difference between happiness and contentment: while happiness vanishes the second anything goes wrong, contentment can be maintained even in quite averse circumstances.

No comments: