Tuesday, July 8, 2014

It is contentment, stupid

Part 1/2

In recent years so much has been written, talked about and discussed on the topic of happiness - or the lack of it in today’s world. And what spurred this debate was a quote from the former King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. In 1979, pestered by an Indian journalist* while transiting at Bombay Airport, His Majesty stated that "for Bhutan, gross national happiness (GNH) was more important than gross national product".

Despite low GDP, Bhutanese are generally content with life   
While the King never elaborated further, on that famous statement, what one can deduce, considering the context and circumstances under which His Majesty made that remark, is that he really didn’t mean happiness per se. What His Majesty could have meant by gross national happiness (and I hope someday I could confirm this) was contentment. And by this it means that he wanted his people to be content whatever the annual per capita income may be. During that period Bhutan's annual GNP per capita was in fact just USD 35, the lowest in the world. But the Bhutanese people were generally happy - as they are now.

Nevertheless, His Majesty steered the country for 34 years based on this unique philosophy. He also lived according to his own dictum; preferring a 3-room log cabin in the outskirts of Thimphu (where he continues to live today) to the massive Dechencholing Palace. He abdicated in 2006 (at 51) and leads an ordinary (read extraordinary) life. He never travelled out of Bhutan for pleasure.

Back to our topic, is there then a difference between happiness and contentment? 

At first glance one would think that both concepts were the same. But on closer scrutiny there is a huge difference. A happy person is obviously contented, at least temporarily; but a contented person may or may not be happy. A poor widow with seven children and living in the slums of Mumbai may live quite a contented life if she can feed them while also coming to terms with her conditions in some ways. On the other hand, a millionaire who throws wild parties every night would get bursts of happiness but may not be content  inside. 

The search for contentment is however not easy. It is something that every individual on the planet would grapple with for eternity. 

So, let us illustrate the three key differences between the two concepts.

Time scale – Happiness, especially as it is understood in the west is transitory and temporary. It is a fleeting moment – a result of some pleasure seeking activities. You are happy on a Sunday afternoon and grumpy the next morning as you drive to work. Whereas, contentment is permanent. It is there all the time – deep inside you, on weekends as well as on hard weekdays.

Subjectivity– Happiness is subjective. It varies from person to person, from communities to communities and even between nations. What makes one happy may not make another person happy. Or something that works for a nation happy may not work for another country. Contentment is absolute. Fundamental contentment is the indestructible sense of wellbeing that cuts across nations, cultures, communities and traditions.

Subliminal – Happiness is apparent and tangible. A happy face glows with smiles, laughter and delight. A contented person may or may not show these signs. But the contented person is calm, composed and in peace; no matter what happens in the vicinity. He is neither shaken by tragedies nor does he go euphoric with temporary excitements.

Achievability – Unlike happiness that is subjective and thus unachievable, contentment is something that is absolutely reachable. Achieving contentment means accepting what one has and what one is - a goal that each one of us, rich, poor, ugly, handsome can all strive for and go for it. 

Good luck to all. 


* The Indian journalist is supposed to have asked the King, "We don't know anything about your country. To start with, what is the per capita income of Bhutan?"

** I am collaborating on an exciting research on decoding the science of contentment with UC Berkeley and Yale University. Here is our lead researcher Dr. Daniel Cordaro speaking at Being Human Institute in San Francisco

No comments:

Post a Comment