Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: a phrase nearly all Americans have come to identify with. What makes the construction of this proverb relatively unique is that it progresses in an order of necessity; you need life to obtain liberty and liberty to obtain happiness. At the very least, it is impossible for an individual who is not free to choose their way of life to be happy. But the pursuit of happiness is a misleading phrase, a wild goose chase. My argument isn’t based on pessimism and I’m certainly not going on a tangent about the validity of feeling happy; I see this motto as an encouragement of the mindset of “I just want to be happy” in times of difficulty. If an individual were to live by this phrase, they would constantly work towards obtaining that happiness no matter how they feel at the moment. And if it isn’t obvious enough, happiness isn’t something that stays forever: but contentment is.
It is completely unrealistic to chase relentlessly after happiness because it isn’t constant. It is a part of the human experience to feel miserable and frustrated and upset. These feelings can’t be negated in the thought of only striving for happiness. What is more important than happiness is being content. These two emotions often get used interchangeably, but in reality, they are completely independent of one another.
I’ll use a simple example to demonstrate. Imagine you are walking down the street. You look down and find a $20 bill. In this instance, being content is in the former half. You are simply at peace walking down the street: you have no immediate desire to obtain something. When you look to find a $20 bill on the floor, that’s when you feel happy. You gained something additional. If you take that $20 bill away, you are still left with a feeling of contentment. However, if that feeling wasn’t present before, you will always be searching to find another $20 bill on the floor. That’s when you begin to ignore any other emotion; you become consumed with finding that one external factor. Contentment is completely different. It is there whether you are happy or not, as a stable, consistent perspective. We should be striving for the pursuit of contentment, not happiness. And lucky for us, contentment is very easy to attain.
It all has to do with perspective. For instance, as students living through a global pandemic, it isn’t hard to notice there is a lot going wrong. We are paying an incredible amount of money to attend the University of Michigan, receiving an almost completely online education. We are constantly worried about the health of our loved ones, we have very limited social interaction and we have no idea what to expect in the next year. But we are still students at an incredibly renowned university, we are still living through a global virus, we still have the means to be building our future today regardless of whether school is online or not. We are living in a developed country, where while we do have to worry about a pandemic, our attention isn’t divided by war, like Palestine, or famine, like Yemen, or floods, like Pakistan. Being content is about appreciating what you have and not what you could have. Thinking about the possibilities of obtaining things you don’t have access to yet can be exhausting. And that is what happiness is. We undoubtedly live in challenging times, and it is hard for all of us to adapt. Our general happiness levels may have been shot down but we can’t let that impact how content we can be.
Appreciating every little benefit in your life makes you see how much you have, how much you don’t need to obtain or worry about. That’s the secret behind being content and not happy, which is much more important than the secret behind being happy and not content. If you’re only in it for happiness, you’re in for a lot of disappointment that cannot be remedied at the moment: But if you’re in it for contentment, you have a stable sense of tranquility that a lack of happiness cannot take away from you.