Listen in on the following conversation : “Marilyn, we just found a perfect personal ad for you. It reads, ‘Professional man seeks the company of a professional woman. His most attractive quality: contentedness.’”
Wordlessly I stare at my friends as they follow up with another personal ad they also think worthy of my response.
“Successful and handsome man looking for a mature relationship: frequently described as a ‘happy guy.’”
I continue to stare at my friends. “Say something, Marilyn!” they demand.
So I begin with my testimony that they have heard before: “I am not looking for the company of a happy or contented man. I’m not looking for anyone. I don’t have the time or inclination to develop a romantic relationship at this stage in my life. I don’t want to take on someone else’s grandchildren or his peculiar habits ingrained by years of repetition, and I don’t want to learn to cook like his first wife did. I’ve hardly learned how to cook, period.” (I point to my kitchen counter, where a decorative pillow reads, “I only have a kitchen because it came with the house.”)
Just between you and me (that sounds so ungrammatical, I know), I have to admit there was something rather provocative about those two ads, but it had nothing to do with whether I was inclined to respond. The points of interest for me are the potential questions the ads raise. One guy is content, the other happy.
Is it possible to be content but not happy? Is it possible to be happy but not content?
What is the difference between the two statuses, and should that difference matter to the rest of us and not just to the person who answers the ads? I think the answers can provide valuable clarity for our more-craving souls.
Can a Happy Person Be Content?
Contentment is a state of being that is characterized by not wanting more than we have. A contented person is basically satisfied with life’s circumstances. On a spiritual level, we, like the apostle Paul, can be content with life knowing we have a transformed soul and God has sovereignly ordained our circumstances. Because we trust God, we can be content to leave it all to Him.
But on a human level, being content with our circumstances and having no desire to change them can at times be incomprehensible – simply beyond our understanding. For example, I wonder how a pig can be content to snort around in garbage and wallow in the mud? That is incomprehensible to me. Why? Because I’m not a pig. Pigs, however, were meant to find contentment in that environment.
Then how can a human being be content to live in a filthy environment with rodents scurrying around everywhere? That’s equally incomprehensible to me. Why? Because it’s not my idea of contentedness.
Yet, as incomprehensible as that is to me, the apostle Paul lived in a jail cell with rodents scurrying around everywhere and said he was content. His statement reminds us again that contentedness is an inside job; it comes as the pig lives out the destiny for which it was created, and it comes to you and me as we share Paul’s trust in God’s timing and sovereignty.
Now let’s talk about the word happy. We know it is an adjective that describes a feeling. And we know that feelings are never constant; they can change dramatically or unexpectedly. So is it possible to be content and also happy? Of course it is, but happy moments come along as additions to the state of contentedness.
While he was imprisoned, Paul experienced moments of happiness when he received a supportive and loving letter from the outside. Being happy was a bonus to the contentedness he already felt.
So, can a happy person be content? Actually, no – at least not without some groundwork.
Let me explain: a person experiencing the feeling of being happy without the grounding of contentment is only going to continue living a craving-for-more existence. That’s why I’d never go for the guy who is only happy. If he has no foundation of contentment, he will blow around the universe in search of more happy feelings. He’s got the order wrong. He must first find contentment; then he can enjoy the happy moments that come and go throughout a lifetime.
Differing Definitions of Happy
It would seem that answering the question “What is happiness?” should be simple. After all, everyone wants it, experiences it, and recognizes it. But the fact is, there are thousands of books on happiness, and most start their discussion with the question “What is it?” Almost all find happiness difficult to define. Why? Because everyone experiences happiness differently.
We know happiness is a feeling based on an experience; that experience may make one person happy but not another. We also know the feeling of being happy is a relatively brief elevation of mood that for one may be slurping ice cream while for another it’s organizing a closet.
Recently I read about another example of differing happy feelings in the story of a Pennsylvania man who is refusing to take down a twenty-four-foot-tall illuminated cross he built in his front yard. The cross builder says its size demonstrates his religious conviction, but officials say the cross violates local ordinances and shines into neighbors’ windows. The cross builder says the size of the cross represents the size of his faith; just looking at it makes him happy. The neighbors, however, don’t share his happy feeling.
As I was watching a TV account of conjoined female twins, I had to reeducate myself to remember that conjoined twins are babies whose embryos did not separate completely during fetal development. The result is the birth of two babies who remain physically connected to each other when they leave the womb.
The twins in the TV report are fused at the shoulders; they have two heads with separate, fully functioning brains but only one trunk, two arms, and two legs. Because they have separate brains, they have differing thought processes as well as differing personalities. Both twins are effervescent and charming; one is a little more outspoken than the other, but their mother says they usually live in harmony with their differences.
At the time of the televised report, they were just turning sixteen, going to a public high school, talking and giggling on the phone. They like boys, play on a softball team, and are taking driver’s education with the anticipation of getting a driver’s license.
In spite of all those normal teenage activities, the twins are obviously physically challenged, and there is no clear-cut medical precedent to follow as they develop into adulthood. As a result, their future well-being is medically uncertain.
Nevertheless, both twins are certain about one thing: they do not ever want to be surgically separated. When asked why, each said she loves knowing the other is there. To know they will always sleep together, laugh together, eat together, and cry together is a source of enormous comfort to them. I was jolted as they both looked into the camera and one said, “Doesn’t everyone long to be connected to someone she loves? Well, we are naturally connected, and we make each other happy.”
What was startling to me as a viewer of the show was that I could not imagine their connection produced happiness. My thought was, You only think you’re happy because you’ve never known anything else. We almost always choose the familiar to the unknown. And yet, what right do I have to decide what constitutes their happiness?
The Drive to Feel Happy
My reaction to the conjoined twin’s statement reveals one of the problems with searching for a definition of happiness: we don’t always agree on its source. That lack of agreement leaves us with a definition that usually begins, “Well, it’s that certain feeling when…”
Though we may not experience happiness as a result of the same experiences, the human race is still highly driven to feel happy. All philosophies since Plato discuss the primary purpose and intention of life as the search for happiness.
Seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal said all persons seek happiness. It is the motive of every action of every person. Nineteenth-century researcher Sigmund Freud also stated that the purpose and intention of life is to be happy— and ideally to become increasingly more and more happy.
Thomas Jefferson not only felt that striving for happiness was important; he believed the “pursuit of happiness” was our national birthright. As such, it was written into the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. He believed the main business of the state was to provide for the happiness of those governed.
The craving for more happiness ranks right up there with the drive for more romance. Both cravings can be relentless drivers; we will go to almost any length to satisfy those urges. If we agree with Jefferson, the drive to achieve more happiness is more than human craving; it’s a civil right. (Perhaps that makes it more commendable than the craving for more romance.)
What Makes Us Happy
So far, in an effort to answer the question “What is happiness?” we can only say, “It’s not clear.” We know it’s a feeling that produces a pleasurable elevation in mood, we know it does not last indefinitely, and we know that what makes one person happy does not make another happy. We also know that for centuries great minds have written about how the pursuit of happiness is one of humanity’s greatest more cravings. That’s a lot of hot air and black ink devoted to a subject no one seems able to nail down!
To add even more ink to the illusive and ill-defined subject of happiness, I’m going to make a few suggestions of my own, based on seventy-two years of living, searching for, and experiencing happiness-producing moments.
Enlarging Our Potential for Happiness
I suggest the establishing of a laugh lifestyle.
Laughter and the ability for choosing the amusing rather than self-defeat is a deliberately chosen attitude of the mind. In fact, there is a direct correlation from our attitudes to our ability to experience happiness.
One of the most crucial attitudes we can develop is one of gratitude. A grateful attitude in itself produces an elevation of mood.
When I see my circumstances through the lens of a grateful mindset instead of the “I’m not getting what I want” mind-set, I feel better; I even have the potential to be happy in spite of circumstances.
My encouragement that you develop an attitude of gratitude may be so familiar that you simply respond, “Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard that before.” But I suggest we all (myself included) hear it again. Keeping a “gratitude list” may sound corny, but it redirects our mind and lifts our mood. Write up a list of everything for which you are grateful: the big stuff and the little stuff.
Here are a few sources of gratitude on my list today: the side door no longer sticks, I located more of my favorite hard-to-find vanilla loose-leaf tea, birds are singing again, the new water filter makes the water taste better, my lamp throws light perfectly on my book. And at the top of this list is the greatest source of my gratitude: Jesus loves me.
Hopefully our lists go on and on. If they do, we enlarge our happiness potential.
Excerpted with permission from Constantly Craving: How to Make Sense of Always Wanting More by Marilyn Meberg, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2012.
* * *
Are you a content person? What are you grateful for? Share with us on our blog! We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily