What makes for a good life, and how to achieve it, has been debated throughout the centuries. Most people agree that happiness - emotional wellbeing or satisfaction - would be a key ingredient.
Two forms of happiness have been distinguished since ancient times.
The first comes from pleasure. This could simply be the enjoyment of a delicious meal, a relaxing day out, or a playful conversation with a friend.
The second arises from being connected with our values and sense of meaning. Rather than acting simply for our own enjoyment, it includes awareness and care for the wellbeing of others. An example would be the satisfaction of knowing that you make a positive difference to others through your work or relationships.
A recent study* suggests a third, less commonly discussed aspect of happiness: psychological richness. This arises from having a range of interesting, engaging experiences that change your perspective on life. While such diverse experiences may not be entirely positive in themselves, taken together they can create a bountiful sense of being alive. This quality is rooted in openness, curiosity and a sense of adventure. It involves stepping out of our comfort zone and embodies an attitude of 'saying yes to life'.
I would like to suggest a fourth way to happiness: the equanimity that stems from learning to be okay with whatever is happening in the moment. As a description of happiness, this may seem paradoxical, as this quality of contentment includes acceptance of unpleasant experiences such as illness, loss and painful feelings. No human life is one of unalloyed pleasure: if that is what we believe it 'should' be, we are likely to feel dissatisfied; even miserable: "Life isn't matching up to how it was supposed to be!" To understand that life brings the full range of experiences and emotions is to make peace with how it actually is, rather than how we wish it were.
This perspective is aided by a recognition that feelings and occurrences are transient. Understanding the impermanence of emotions lessens the load when it comes to coping with painful experiences. But it also helps us to let go when good things inevitably come to an end. This increases our equanimity. Such tranquility is not to be underestimated. It is as different from a habitual state of ‘discontent with one’s lot’ as day is from night.
This peaceful quality may sound out of reach: the preserve of sages and wise philosophers. An inclination towards discontent seems to come naturally for most of us. Yet contentment can be cultivated. In meditation, we practice meeting all inner experiences - whether pleasant, unpleasant or humdrum - with a quality of allowing. Instead of hungrily chasing an idea of 'something better', we gently face what is actually here, right now. By degrees, we can come to terms with life as it actually is.
To be content is not the same as being passively resigned. It is based in courage, not fear. It is natural to wish to avoid the less palatable sides of life, so it can be challenging to deliberately turn towards them. This quality of ‘allowing’ is a skill that we can gradually develop, treading the line between avoiding difficult feelings and wallowing in them. This is a core skill of mindfulness that anyone can cultivate, with practice.
A recent study aligns happiness with a salary of £30,000 or more.** Being above the poverty line clearly helps to reduce stress. However, once our essential needs are covered, the quality of contentment does not come with a price tag. It could even help to curb the excesses of our consumer economy.
It does not negate the capacity for pleasure, but does not rely on it. It may go hand in hand with the satisfaction of leading a ‘worthwhile’ life, yet it does not need any justification. Such peacefulness may sit alongside many rich and varied life-experiences. Yet it could equally be present in the most ordinary circumstances.
We can all, to some extent, experience all four kinds of wellbeing:
1. Pleasure and enjoyment (hedonic happiness)
2. Satisfaction arising from acting for the greater good (eudemonic happiness)
3. A range of interesting experiences (psychological richness)
4. A capacity to be okay with things just as they are (contentment and equanimity)
Obviously, these different forms of happiness are not mutually exclusive. But life requires us to make choices. A promotion with a bigger salary may increase possibilities for pleasure, but not necessarily foster contentment. Our small daily choices, as much as our big decisions, weave these qualities of wellbeing – or their absence – into our lives. Mindfulness practice also helps here, in supporting us to be more aware of the many choices that create this life, so much of which is of our own making.
*Oishi, S., & Westgate, E. C. (2022). A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning.
** Raisin research: “Does money buy you happiness?” based on analysing data from Office for National Statistics (ONS)
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