Cultivating the Quality of Contentment, Part I
As shall be demonstrated in this series, cultivating the quality of deep-seated contentment constitutes a key cornerstone in integrating a wellness mindset and lifestyle into recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, and other addictive disorders. This column is the first installment in a two-column series focusing on the importance of contentment in living a truly authentic and fulfilling life, while deepening a commitment to recovery. This series is largely inspired by one of my favorite books, Finding Contentment: When Momentary Happiness Just Isn’t Enough (1997), by Neil Clark Warren.
This first installment will focus on defining and elaborating on the quality of contentment, as distinct from the compulsive pursuit of profound yet fleeting experiences of momentary happiness. We will also examine the significant degree of overlap between chemical dependency and the obsessive pursuit of happiness, together with the relevance of these concepts to both addictive disorders and recovery from addiction.
The dictionary defines “contentment” as being essentially synonymous with peace of mind, satisfaction, and “freedom from both worry and restlessness” (Merriam-Webster, 2017).
Warren is concerned with the search for enduring contentment, which he defines as embodying a sense of deep-down, soul-satisfying contentment that infuses our lives with peace, serenity, and an abiding sense of fulfillment. He goes on to state that the deepest and richest form of contentment is the natural result of a truly authentic existence (Warren, 1997). Authenticity, in turn, entails knowing ourselves intimately, appreciating our unique gifts and abilities—while coming to terms with our less desirable qualities—and making moment by moment choices that demonstrate honor and respect for ourselves and those around us.
The Distinction between Contentment and the Compulsive Pursuit of Happiness
While Warren is fine with pursuing and fully enjoying life’s precious moments of sheer joy and ecstasy, he is very concerned with our becoming obsessed with these moments, which he defines as “happiness highs” (1997). In his words, “Happiness (as distinct from contentment) is usually more superficial and is usually contingent on something (or someone) external to you” (Warren, 1997). He contends that at the center of our inner being, we all yearn for a quite sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. However, as many if not most of us fail to attain a deep sense of contentment in our lives, we are vulnerable to becoming consumed by a frantic search for “happiness surges.”
We live in a culture which heavily exposes us to societal influences, reinforced by peer pressures that feed into our compulsive pursuit of the biggest and best of everything! The media and the advertising industry thrive on constantly bombarding us with supposedly foolproof promises of how to find happiness—be it in the form of a new car with all the latest gizmos, the right sex partner, a bigger house in a better neighborhood, wearing elegant clothes and jewelry or rising to the top of the ladder in our careers. As Warren points out, this headlong pursuit of instantaneous happiness is designed to distract us from an inner sense of emptiness, and to numb ourselves to the deeply felt pain of lack of meaning in our lives and our gnawing sense of futility. In his words, “This addiction requires daily, sometimes hourly, fixes so there is little time or energy left to pursue healthier, more permanent (and more meaningful) solutions to our dilemmas” (1997).
Let us now take a look at the striking similarities between addiction to drugs and alcohol, and the addictive pursuit of happiness.
Addiction and the Pursuit of Happiness
Just as chemically dependent people are (often subconsciously) obsessed with escaping from the seemingly intolerable experience of deeply felt pain, misery, and lack of meaning in their own lives, the lives of those caught up in the obsessive pursuit of happiness is likewise consumed with a frenetic search to fill a deep-seated sense of void while momentarily escaping from the pain, drudgery, and lack of meaning in their lives.
Indeed, there is a great deal of overlap and striking similarity between these two basic manifestations of addiction. Consequently, I believe that “former addicts” who are abstaining from alcohol and drugs while not following a structured recovery program are highly vulnerable to transforming their former primary addiction into a highly addictive pursuit of superficial “happiness highs.”
As is the case with dependency on chemical substances, this incessant craving for happiness will never be satisfied, as people’s inner lives remain devoid of true meaning, fulfillment, and genuine self-satisfaction. This sad circle includes the millions of “career singles” who are constantly looking for love in all the wrong places while always finding fault with their current partners; together with the legions of men and women who sacrifice their lives to obsessively pursuing the pinnacle of career success, to the detriment of their relationships with family and friends and their ability to find true contentment in their lives, together with the overall destruction of their health, well-being, and intrinsic sense of worth. These are just two of the more prominent manifestations of this truly devastating addiction.
To summarize, in this installment we have focused on the distinction between the attainment of a deeply ingrained sense of true contentment, as contrasted with the addictive pursuit of superficial “happiness highs.” We have also examined the commonalities between addiction to substances of abuse and the obsessive pursuit of fleeting and often superficial moments of happiness. The next and final installment will discuss measures that both we and our clients can undertake to cultivate the qualities of contentment and equanimity in our lives.
Merriam-Webster. (2017). Contentment. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contentment
Warren, N. C. (1997). Finding contentment: When momentary happiness just isn’t enough. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.