The Road to Contentment

People are strongly, perhaps primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy.

Happiness is what all humans are seeking. It is our ultimate goal in life. Every decision we make throughout our day and throughout our lives is, at its core, directed at attaining a degree of happiness as a result. Everybody has a different idea of what happiness is, what would produce it, and how we should go about attaining it. It can also be organic or synthetic, meaning we can get the same or similar feeling when we remember the happy experience or when we look forward to experiencing it. But what will produce the feeling one minute, most likely will not produce the same feeling the next. This is known as habituation. Happiness is a moving target.

Among life’s cruelest truths is this one: Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. - Dan Gilbert

What Is Happiness?
The definition of happiness that I have chosen to live my life by is the one proposed by Tim Ferris, that “happiness is excitement” and conversely, “unhappiness is boredom”. But before we commit to this ideal, I believe that we have to dig a little deeper before we devote our lives to this.

He is happy who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life. - Aristotle

Aristotle believed that happiness is an activity or it is derived from an activity in which the individual is performing or achieving a higher state in accordance with a core set of values or virtues. This idea is in step with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s more contemporary view that happiness ensues when we have achieved a state of “optimal experience” or flow - a state where the individual is completely absorbed in an activity, especially when it involves their creative abilities, and they feel "strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities.

Pleasure is an important component in the quality of life, but by itself does not bring happiness...[Pleasurable experiences] do not produce psychological growth....When people ponder further about what makes their lives rewarding, they tend to move beyond pleasant memories and begin to remember other events, other experiences that overlap with pleasurable ones but fall into a category that deserves a separate name: enjoyment...Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment...After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown: in some respect, we have become more complex as a result of it. - Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The feelings we get from pleasure and enjoyment can feel like happiness and/or flow, but the difference is that at some point the feeling fades, and what we have left will determine just what it was. If we have grown from the experience and maybe even become a better person, then that was more than pleasure, it was enjoyment and maybe even flow. Abraham Maslow refers to peak experiences as the experience of happiness.

If we can combine these two ideas of happiness being that of excitement and flow, now that’s living an adventurous life?

What Would Excite You?
If happiness is a state of mind that is achieved when we do something challenging and exciting, then the question we need to ask ourselves is - "What would excite me?" Only when we can truly answer this question, can we figure out how to be happy.

Happiness is a moving target. What excites us today, may not be what excites us tomorrow. In a way, happiness is like a drug that we can build up a tolerance for and keeps us on a treadmill. That's why the life we design for ourselves must include a variety of new and more exciting activities along the way. Happiness is a state of mind that must always be nurtured. But the really cool part is that our happiness is determined by us, not someone else! We are ultimately in charge of our own happiness.

Maslow notes that feelings of intense happiness associated with peak experiences would always be fleeting. In fact, he discouraged people from expecting peak experiences to be anything other than temporary. He seemed to feel that it was only when people accepted this that they were free to settle into personal well-being and happiness.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow is one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. His biggest contributions to psychology were his contributions to humanistic psychology as well as his development of the hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization (to become everything that one is capable of becoming).

Maslow notes that self-actualized people tend to experience a steadier, grounded sense of well-being and satisfaction with life. According to Maslow, self-actualizing people perceive reality accurately; they have a sense of awe, wonder and gratitude about life. They are not self-centered but rather problem-centered and focus on how to improve and are not deficiency-centered. They are independent thinkers and are not overly influenced by the general culture. Their sense of humor is not sarcastic or hurtful but rather "life-affirming" with a philosophical sense of humor.

Healthy people who have fulfilled these lower needs are able to act based on the desire to grow rather than being motivated by deficiencies. Simply put, their deficiencies do not determine their actions and instead, they are motivated by growth and fulfillment! It is from a position of psychological well-being that one is able to pursue what Maslow perceived as the universal human tendency to strive for growth, autonomy, identity and the excellence of self-actualization. - Maslow

So, one definition of happiness is excitement, and another is that happiness comes from achieving self-actualization, and I agree with both. But, I believe that what Maslow was calling “happiness” I would call contentment.

I think we can agree that in order to appreciate happiness we must have unhappiness and even sorrow to balance things out. If a permanent state of happiness could be achieved, would we choose that. If someone invented a happiness device that when implanted would generate a constant state of euphoria, would we have that operation, or would we take that drug? Happiness must be achieved and it must be temporary.

So, are we fated to live a life in constant search of happy moments, riding the cycle of ups and downs that come crashing with it? I believe we are, but if those highs are states of enjoyment or flow, then we can learn from and build on each one, and in this sense the waves that we are riding will trend upward. And that upward sloping line that can be drawn along the average of these highs and lows is what I would call contentment (as long as it's sloping upward). And contentment, unlike happiness, is a state of being that, with some understanding and work, can be permanent.

How do we know when we have reached a desired level of contentment? I think contentment is when we are in harmony with our: Past - No regrets and no guilt (you must let these things go). Present - Being in the moment (doing what you want, when you want, and with whom you want). Future - No worry (having a purpose or major goal to be working toward).

“...the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” - Aristotle

Getting Started
If living a life of contentment is the long-term goal, then achieving states of happiness or flow are the short-term goals that we must strive to attain as much as possible. It may not be readily apparent that what we are about to do will lead to a state of flow, but we just need to do it and see. And after some time, we will start to recognize when a situation may turn out to be flowish. And then ride it!

Here are some questions to ask ourselves afterward - Did I learn something in general or about myself? Did I test myself physically, mentally, or emotionally? Did I improve myself, my situation, or someone else’s in anyway? If we can answer yes to questions like these, then most likely, we achieved a state of flow and we just took another step toward our ultimate goal.

Keep in mind - that state of flow may not be pleasurable or enjoyable at the time. In fact it may take a while before we can look back on an event and realize that we were in a state of flow. But when we do, we may start to feel a smile forming, we might chuckle a bit, or we might just laugh out loud, and that’s when we will recognize that that was a moment of flow. That’s when we know we are on the right track and we should try to duplicate that!

Now let's get out there and have some peak experiences!


  • Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert
  • The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris
  • Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi