Opinion: Choose contentment over happiness

The other day, in a moment of pause between assignments and conversations and responsibilities, a question popped into my head as perhaps it has popped into yours: “Am I happy?”

I was struck. I did not know how to answer the question. It floated in my mind as I finished my dinner, as I completed the next day’s to-do list and as I talked with my roommates before bed. It seemed like it shouldn’t be so hard to answer. If I was living life right, shouldn’t the answer be a resounding yes? Shouldn’t I know, at least, whether I was happy or not?

Part of my confusion comes from language. In English, we’re limited in how we can say what something “is.” I either am happy or I am not. In Spanish, by comparison, there are two words. You can say “estoy feliz ”: I am happy in the moment; or “soy feliz”: I am a happy person; happiness is inherent to who I am.

I treasure the times when “estoy feliz,” but the ability to be constantly happy is unrealistic and even unhealthy. “Soy feliz” is something different. It is closer to contentment, peace or joy. A state of being and not an emotion. An outlook and not a reaction.

Happiness so often is about me.  When I have what I want, I am happy. I am happy when I’m where I want to be. There are times in my life when this happens, and it’s wonderful. But then there are times when loved ones are suffering or the world seems broken or I have to scrub my toilet or my English paper’s due.

Magazines tell us if we were thinner, we’d be happy. Commercials tell us happiness will come if we only eat more. People exploit substances and relationships in a desperate attempt to gain something that they think they are missing. But what if we don’t have to be happy all the time?

Sadness, frustration, sorrow and anger are all necessary human emotions. Anger illuminates wrongs in the world and gives us the impetus to fix them. Sorrow stems from empathy and acknowledges wrongs in a way happiness cannot.

Happiness is more pleasant than any of these other emotions, but happiness (“estoy feliz”) is temporary. The part of me that mourns with those who mourn or even studies for a big test takes the long view.

I think that happiness is overrated. There are seasons in my life when I am happy in the moment, and there are seasons that are hard. If we judge the quality of our lives by the metric of emotions we will always come up short.

There is more to a worthwhile life than happiness. There is a deeper hunger that happiness cannot fill. Stop asking yourself if you are happy and ask instead if you can learn to be “content in all circumstances.” Rather than be always happy, I would rather, in the words of Wendell Berry, “be joyful though [I] have considered all the facts.”