Discover examples of contentment, and learn how to become more content.
Contentment is the calm joy or quiet pleasure we feel when our needs are (even transiently) satisfied and we are in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings. Researchers Monnot and Beehr describe contentment as “low in activation,” “high positive valence,” and “the lack of anxiety” (2014).
Contented people feel “the urge to savor and integrate” (Fredrickson, 1998). When we’re content, we feel safe and not under pressure (Fredrickson, 1998), and we’re usually engaged in a personally meaningful activity. Contentment can also follow a period of accomplishment when we “stop to smell the roses” before pushing ahead with other life goals (Fredrickson, 1998). Indeed, contentment is associated with “mastery activities,” i.e., activities that provide a sense of competence (Berenbaum, Huang, & Flores, 2019, p. 252).
In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Catherine Linton memorably describes her vision of contentment: “rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above [...]” (Bronte, 1847).
Other examples of contentment include
Resting after a satisfying workout
Relaxing in the park with old high school friends after a successful college semester
Enjoying a pancake brunch and manicure outing with a close friend
Sunbathing on the beach after a busy season at work
Playing fetch with your dog in a grassy park
Discontentment happens when our needs (including those for meaning, mastery, and peace) go unmet. It’s hard to feel content if you’re starving, living with high community violence, lonely, or working a job you see as pointless. If contentment stems from your sense of mastery and competence, you may also feel discontent when you fall short of your own standards or struggle to learn a new skill.
How to Cultivate Contentment
Here are several strategies you can explore to bring more contentment into your life:
Do something you’re good at. What is your element? Whether it’s stock market investing, painting, throwing parties, or something else, devoting more time to it may bring you contentment.
Practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude may help you tune into the ways your needs are already being met and appreciate the goals you’ve already achieved. Shifting your focus to the positive and meaningful parts of your life might bring on contentment.
Identify your needs and do your best to meet them. Easier said than done, especially if you’re facing financial, health, political, or other constraints. (Even identifying our exact needs may be difficult.) Most of us can’t meet all our needs, perfectly, all the time, but the good news is that you don’t have to perfect your life to feel contentment.
Connect with loved ones. Quality time with loved ones can promote features of contentment, including meaning and safety. If you plan interactions around a shared activity, you might also encourage mastery for all attendees. For example, if you and a friend both excel at baking, you could plan a cozy, contented afternoon replicating a recipe from a baking show.
Protect your time. Overscheduling and overcommitting yourself could cause discontentment–it’s hard to feel meaning, peace, or competence as you frantically rush to check off every last item on your to-do list. Rushing also interferes with savoring (Fredrickson, 1998) achievements.
Try not to compare yourself to others. A well-known (and successfully replicated) study found that, counterintuitively, Olympic bronze medalists are happier with their achievements than silver medalists. This finding has been attributed to comparison–whereas silver medalists compare themselves to higher-achieving gold medalists, bronze medalists compare themselves to competitors who didn’t win a medal (discussed in Goldman, 9 August 2012). Thus, silver medalists feel disappointed while bronze medalists feel relief.
Contentment is unself-conscious, satisfied, calm, sometimes masterful engagement with the world around you. When you’re contented, you might also feel peaceful, safe, competent, and in harmony with yourself. Unlike happiness, contentment doesn’t depend on external events going perfectly right; it rests more on the quality of your relationships with yourself and the world. Contentment can signal that we’re meeting our needs, and its absence can push us to make changes. Unlike complacency, contentment is not apathetic and does not tolerate an unjust status quo.
To cultivate contentment, we can use our strengths, practice gratitude, identify and meet our needs, commune with our loved ones, set boundaries to prevent overwhelm, and avoid comparison. Although these changes are difficult, they may not all be necessary for your contentment, and you definitely don’t need to be perfect to cultivate contentment in your life. These changes are also only suggestions–everyone’s vision of contentment will differ, after all. When do you feel most contented? If you can shift your goals and schedule to accommodate more of these moments, you’ll be well on your way to a contented life.
Berenbaum, H., Huang, A. B., & Flores, L. E. (2019). Contentment and tranquility: Exploring their similarities and differences. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(2), 252-259.
Bronte, E. (1847). Wuthering heights.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of general psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Goldman, J. G. (9 August 2012). Why bronze medalists are happier than silver winners. Scientific American.
Monnot, M. J., & Beehr, T. A. (2014). Subjective well-being at work: Disentangling source effects of stress and support on enthusiasm, contentment, and meaningfulness. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 85(2), 204-218.