As part of our sporadic Eavesdrop podcast series, we take an expansive subject, invite interesting humans to get together, liberally apply beer and snacks and see where it takes us. This issue’s topic? Contentment. How to define it, whether it’s achievable and if the pursuit of it is a blessing or a curse. From the three lies we all tell ourselves, to the anxiety inducing self-comparison and one-upmanship of social media, to toppling the Maslow pyramid of need, the discussion took us all sorts of places with some rather eye- opening conclusions.
Hear the full podcast through SoundCloud soon. And in the meantime, tuck into some of the prime cuts from this rather meaty subject…
Around the table discussing contentment with Stranger’s own Clare Howdle were:
Adele Jarrett Kerr
Writer, mother and brains (along with her husband Laurence) behind Soul Farm, Adele is a deep thinker whose insights and contemplations on happiness and wellbeing inform her popular blog Beautiful Tribe, where she ‘consciously navigates family life.’
Dr. Tomas Chaigneau
An environmental social scientist who studies the relationship between the natural environment and people’s wellbeing, Tomas has spent many hours researching and considering metrics for measuring happiness and wellbeing and what constitutes a contented society.
Writer, editor and author of the critically-acclaimed novel, The Many, Wyl is often found in our studio engaged in an existential crisis-sparking conversation. Interested in the human condition, the challenges and traits of creative endeavour and his own tendency to imagine the worst possible scenario to trigger the best, contentment is never too far from his mind.
Clare: Let’s start with the big question – what’s your take on the pursuit of contentment or happiness and the challenges it presents today?
Wyl: When I started thinking about it, I realised I am a bit uncomfortable about it all. I saw a friend of mine Alex Honnold featured in Free Solo and one of the things he says in the film is no one achieves anything great by being happy and cosy. I think I agree with him.
Clare: So happiness can be restrictive?
Wyl: I definitely feel like the majority of my professional life has been built on some kind of discontentment. In that, I wouldn’t create if I was content.
Clare: Is that true though? I feel like it’s a cliché that the creative has to be a malcontent?
Wyl: I feel like being a malcontent is perfectly acceptable. But seriously, it is true about being discontent, because I want to change something. I want to alter an emotional state by writing something, an article, a short story, a novel. It means in some way I am not contented because that’s what wanting change is all about. I don’t think it’s about unhappiness. Although there is definitely uncertainty for long periods of time, which challenges ‘happiness’. Especially if you’re writing a novel, which is three years or so of being in a very uncertain state, where I don’t know if anything I am writing or thinking is any good whatsoever and it’s only in the last few minutes when someone says, ‘I’m going to buy that’, that I get any sort of validation for what I am doing.
Adele: There is this idea that there are three lies we all believe. And whichever lie you attach to is going to affect what happiness means for you. So one is I am what I have, one is I am what I do, and one is I am what other people think about me. And the way we pursue happiness follows one of those lies more than the other. But actually none of those lies can really make you happy because you can’t control what everybody thinks of you, you will lose things and you will eventually fail at something, so you can’t control what you do. It’s detaching from those ideas and finding a way to tear those lies down that is the path to contentment, because you are no longer investing in trying to control these things that are outside yourself.
One of the lies, ‘I am what people think of me’, is so relevant right now where digital saturation is at this epic point and everyone’s life is constructed and curated for people to see, because that’s a validation of who they are and what they want to be.
Wyl: Yes, you end up comparing your reality with their artifice. I struggle with that pretty much every day because I rely on social media to stay in touch with people but the by-product of that is that then I see the deals that are being struck at London Book Fair, or the multimillion pound deal some 12 year old got and that makes me, deeply, deeply unhappy.
"You can’t control what everybody thinks of you, you will lose things and you will eventually fail at something so you can’t control what you do. It’s detaching from those ideas that is the path to contentment."
Clare: It’s something I keep pondering though, this idea that the perpetual pursuit of happiness is the source of much anxiety in contemporary culture, because of how we compare ourselves to others.
Tom: Well the ‘pursuit of happiness’ implies there could be an outcome – so you’re like ‘that’s it, I’ve done it, I’m happy’. But of course it doesn’t really work like that. It’s a relative term. As in, I’m really happy and then I take a look at you and I think, ‘hmm, you look a little bit happier than I do, maybe I’m not happy enough.’ So then there’s this constant strive to be happier. So as soon as you mention the pursuit of happiness warning bells ring for me, because if you’re pursuing happiness you might be let down. Happiness should just be a result of living life, not the motivation that shapes it.
Adele: Plus also I think it depends on your definition of ‘happiness’. Some people are comfortable existing in a state of equilibrium or sadness. They are actually OK with being there, whereas other people just need to escape that quickly.
Wyl: Yes, part of my life is about being able to manage working and existing in a state of uncertainty for long periods of time. I’m not a miserable person. It’s just not necessarily what other people would consider ‘happy.’ And that’s different to complaining about it. I have chosen this profession and am happy in those choices and there are moments of transcendent bliss where I wake up in the morning and I can just pick up a pen and it kinds of moves itself. There are tiny little glimmers in amongst the challenges which make it worth it.
Tom: Yes, anyone who says they are truly happy, well I call bullshit. I don’t believe it in any shape or form. There’s happiness on so many levels and in different ways so you might be unhappy and discontent in one dimension but happy in another. I don’t think necessarily you can say someone is happy or unhappy and therefore creative or not creative because of it. I think you’re always fluctuating between these different levels.
Adele: Plus also we’re all presumably speaking from a place of privilege in that we have certain needs that have been covered.
Clare: It definitely feels like the things that bother me about my own happiness are an absolute luxury. The things I worry about, I don’t have real grounds for worry when you look at it in the context of all the terrible things that are going on in the world.
Tom: Although actually there are a lot of different theories looking at wellbeing and happiness, but one very clear methodology stands out, which says that one need is no longer to be considered more important than the others. That the hierarchy of needs is no longer what people should be looking at and that actually all needs should be met at a basic level, so for example even if you’ve got all you need in terms of cash, healthy, security, but you’re unhappy because of the way your family has treated you, well actually you’re in serious harm just in the same way as someone who doesn’t have access to protein is in serious harm.
And conversely, there are many people whose ‘basic’ needs – cash, security, health – might not be seen as met but who are happy. And that gets really difficult and confusing, because as a government or an NGO or a carer, you don’t want to be too paternalistic and say ‘I know you’re happy but, should you be happy? You can’t really be happy, what you really want is this…’
For example, in Kenya and Mozambique I remember vividly going in as a ‘scientist’ you know, with my clipboard saying ‘well what about the water here?’ and the villagers saying ‘Oh yes, it’s great.’ And my heart sank because I thought, well the research has gone to shit. Because I looked, there was one well, there was a goat drinking out of it and it was the only source of water for the whole village. I was thinking ‘this is the water I have to drink? Oh no!’, but literally everybody in the village scored it a max score in terms of water. They all thought ‘we’re absolutely fine, in terms of water here, the real problem is x,y,z.’
That’s called adaptive preferences because everyone in the community is in the same boat, so that’s how it is and no one is better off. In the same situation I think, going back to the social media thing, what’s really scary is now that it’s globalised you have cultures that have been focusing on their own happiness rather than material or consumer goals that are now seeing people flying helicopters and buying big cars of the latest tech and suddenly it changes everything for them. In any shape or form, there’s always someone better than you, someone that’s kinder, more good looking, more intelligent. It changes the game.
"There are moments of transcendent bliss where I wake up in the morning and I can just pick up a pen and it kinds of moves itself. There are tiny little glimmers in amongst the challenges which make it worth it."
Clare: So does the problem lie in this constant comparison with others that our society is now obsessed with and that has been enabled by constant access to social media?
Tom: It really struck me what you said about the three lies Adele. It made me think about how some of those lies are quite important. For example the way others feel about us is such an important part of society, and of normative behaviour, so you might be truly unhappy that you’ve been scorned by somebody on the train for chucking litter out of the window, or listening to your phone on speaker in the quiet carriage, which then might prevent those behaviours in the future. It’s the difference between ‘I need everyone to love me and think I’m amazing,’ and ‘I need to behave within the confines of what’s socially acceptable.’
Adele: The lies all have a grain of truth in them that makes them ring true. It’s when we become obsessed with them that they become problematic. Instead of wanting to do well, or have things, or be perceived well by others, what we need is to be free of obsessing over those things and making them the goal in their own right.
Tom: So is contentment about being happy with less, with lowering your threshold?
Clare: How does that rub up against the idea of pushing for change though, thinking back to what Wyl said about Alex Honnold’s notion about being happy and cosy preventing achievement?
Wyl: Well, I’ve always valued the idea of struggle. Of struggling against something or striving for something else. It’s active and engaged and that can have happiness in it, just as peace can. Perhaps it’s that we need to realise they aren’t permanent states and that happiness is different for everyone. Perhaps it’s that, in fact, those states fluctuate and evolve and it’s the understanding that when happiness comes or goes, that’s OK, because you’re just going into the next state.
Tom: Yes. If you’re good at coping, maybe happiness comes to you more naturally.
Dive deeper into what makes you happy with our reading list of takes on a timeless issue.
Originally published in the New Philosopher, this article cites psychological research to back up Tom’s suspicion of the pursuit of happiness for happiness’ sake.
“We forget that this life of ours is new” – a reminder that there are other, more time-tested ways of finding contentment.
‘Happiness’ is an insufficient and ineffective term – so says the School of Life, reaching back into Greek philosophy and language for a more rounded understanding of what we should be striving for.
And contentment might just start with warm bath – some reassuring perspective shifting from the School of Life.
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