Contentment vs Happiness

When I was chatting with one of my singularly remarkable sisters who has recently become single, she said something that captured my attention. Normally, declarations that come with hesitations make me cautious, or even suspicious, but this one was instructive.

Happy Baby from Max Bukovski via Shutterstock

After I asked her how she was feeling, she said: “I’m feeling hap. . . “ then she paused, rethought, and said: “I’m feeling content. Yes, I am quite contented”. That, it seemed to me, was a significant pause and a very positive amendment to her thoughts.

Of my parents’ six children, four are now widowed. That status has been bestowed on us for differing numbers of years, but so far none of us has remarried. I am one of those widowed siblings and, despite several forays into online dating, I remain single. The reason for this is that solitude has turned out to be quite pleasant. Better, certainly, that spending extended periods of time with most of the men I met via dating sites.

My sister and I agreed that being alone is quite nice, really. Better by far than caring for a sick partner, and better than navigating emotional minefields. We didn’t actually voice that thought so precisely, and I am projecting a little here. Even so, I am pretty sure she would agree.

Contentment from Manshen Lo via Ted.com

Being single is much more satisfying than popular culture would have you believe. The obvious reasons are related to self-determination. You can go when and where you like, with whomever you choose. You can do things just for fun without an explanation. You can eat unhealthy foods without justification. You can watch your own choice of television shows without drawing up a spreadsheet for who watches what when. (That was, mostly, just a joke.)

The less obvious reasons, though, may be more significant. For example, when you are single you have to make decisions alone. At first, this seems like a handicap, but over time it evolves into a strength.

For most of my life I have had to discuss choices with someone else. As one half of a life partnership, it made sense for me to involve my husband in important choices. Eventually, though, it became a necessity. I couldn’t make a decision on my own. After I became single, I realized I had no-one else to evaluate ideas with. To be sure, my husband’s health had been in decline for many years, so I gradually increased my independence in making choices. Even so, finding myself without that practical and emotional backup proved to be life changing. Once I accepted it, I began to enjoy that power and to realize not only my insecurities but also the strengths that I had. That freed me to make decisions that I would otherwise have not even contemplated.

Image via thegibsonedge.com

Another example of the pleasure of singledom is in doing nothing. Really. Nothing. Spending time in thought is something that other people often find hard to live with. They wonder what you are thinking, or they wonder why your attention is not on them, or they wonder if you are upset. Telling them you are just thinking does not seem to satisfy their concerns. When you are single, no one even asks. That opens up much more time for thought.

When you are single, you can read, write, paint, sing, sculpt, say, or feel anything without reference to anyone whose love you depend on.

None of these things is happiness, exactly. Happiness is a wonderful but short-term emotion. Contentment is happiness’s aunt. Related, but not in the same generation. Contentment is in it for the long haul. It isn’t the stuff of a TikTok video, or even a Facebook post. It is more like a blog post or an essay. Satisfying, usually dignified (more or less), and lasting. Happiness is wonderful and exhilarating, but contentment is warm, comfortable, and fits like a pair of old jeans. When you feel it, you know it’s right.

14 Comments

  1. I absolutely agree. Although on occasion I do wish I had someone to consult with, someone of my generation, someone who knows me and my situation.

  2. All I can say is “Amen”. Contented is definitely where I find myself at this point in my life.

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