We just looked at happiness as a wonderful emotion that looks outward, or forward to the future, with hope and delight, and now we come to our friend contentment, which is a form of happiness and pleasure that turns inward, toward you, and says, “Hey, good job!”
(Excerpt from The Language of Emotions):
Happiness tends to anticipate a bright future, while contentment tends to arise after an inner achievement. Contentment arises when you’re living up to your own expectations and your internal moral code, and when you’ve accomplished an important goal or done your work well and properly. When it’s healthy, your contentment comes forward in response to tangible actions and the mastery of challenges.
Contentment arises when you’ve worked hard and well, and it relates to your healthy self image. This means that it has a close connection to your anger, and especially to your shame – and I bet you won’t hear that in many other places, but hear me out.
When you set clear boundaries, behave honorably, and act conscientiously (these are actions that your anger and shame will help you make), your contentment will arise naturally as a kind of reward, “Good job!” Contentment arises to tell you when you’ve done good work – not simply in regard to your accomplishments, but also in regard to your treatment of yourself and others.
If you attend to your anger and your shame honorably, you’ll naturally feel contented and proud of yourself – because you’ll have done good work inside yourself and in relation to the people in your life.
But if you don’t work well with your anger and shame, and if the messages and contracts your shame is based upon are primarily inauthentic and self-tormenting, your contentment might not arise reliably, and your self-regard and self-image might be pretty low.
When you have a problem with self-esteem, you’ll often look for ways to increase contentment and happiness first, so that you can feel better about yourself. But it doesn’t work that way, because contentment arises for very specific reasons, and you can’t take a shortcut to get there.
If you have very low self-regard, contentment is probably the emotion you’d like to feel, but working on your boundaries (the gifts of anger) and your behavior (the gifts of shame) will actually help your contentment arise naturally.
Contentment also arises when you’ve successfully navigated through your difficult emotions – especially your anger, hatred, and shame. Your contentment arises reliably when you respect yourself and others, and when you respect your emotions and allow them to guide your behavior.
CONTENTMENT: Pleasure, Appreciation & Recognition
ACTION REQUIRED: Contentment helps you look toward yourself with pride and satisfaction.
GIFTS: Enjoyment ~ Satisfaction ~ Self-esteem ~ Renewal ~ Confidence ~ Fulfillment
THE INTERNAL QUESTION: How have I embodied my authentic values?
How your contentment can become impeded
Parenting and teaching styles can interfere with the development of contentment and self-confidence. Certainly, parents who over-shame their children can really throw a wrench into this emotional area – but so can parents who overpraise and reward their children for everything. The trick with contentment is to help a child associate their own contentment with actions that are commendable, and that they themselves feel proud and contented about.
A good teaching game for discovering how a child is working with their contentment might be creating tasks that the child can complete, and then checking in to see if the child is satisfied with their performance. You can find out a great deal about a child’s self-concept when you can play with contentment in this way.
As we grow, social structures often interfere with our authentic contentment by trying to replace our natural internal confirmations with prizes and praise that come from the external world. While it’s very nice to receive gold stars, awards, extra privileges, and special attention, these fabricated confirmations can actually short-circuit our own ability to feel honest pride or self-worth unless someone throws a party every time we accomplish something.
External praise also contains a troublesome aspect that is not a part of internal contentment – and that’s competition. All external praise and awards come with built-in comparisons that place you in competition with others. Though the awards and praise may have their own value, they may isolate you from your peers and identify you as a competitor or a pleaser, which will often bring your natural shame forward to question the “fun” of winning. In natural and non-competitive contentment, your achievements aren’t about doing better than others, but about honoring your own good judgment and your own values.
If you can’t connect with your contentment, you may find that you have a short-circuit that was created by authoritarian, scholastic, or parental structures. This short-circuit may lead you to seek praise and awards instead of your own internal confirmations. This often means you’ll tend toward pleasing and perfectionism instead of wholeness and emotional agility.
You’ll tend toward following this rule, chasing that award, and constantly measuring yourself against external expectations (or fighting the awards and losing your drive), instead of allowing your honest emotional reactions to guide you.
Luckily, there’s a practice to disentangle yourself from externally applied expectations and behavioral control: Burn your contracts and reanimate your authentic contentment once again! Then, when you’re connected to your own internal wisdom, you can guide, correct, and validate yourself in self-respecting ways rather than relying on external validation.
The practice for contentment
The practice for all of the happiness-family emotions is extremely simple and infinitely hard (at first): You acknowledge them, thank them, and then let them go.
If you force your contentment (or any other form of happiness) to be your leading emotional state, you’ll lose your emotional agility, and you’ll lose your way.
Your authentic contentment arises naturally when you work with all of your emotions in healing and honorable ways. Welcome your contentment with open arms when it arises, thank it, and then let it go and trust it to come back the next time you honor yourself and behave in ways that make you feel proud.
Your contentment arises naturally when you’ve done an excellent job.
Good on you, and thank you, contentment!