President's Column - January 2004

Simple abundance and rich poverty: The positive psychology of contentment
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

Johnny is one of the happiest persons I have ever met. He is just a little middle-aged Chinese guy, with no pretense to fame or wealth. He is probably one of the lowest paying workers, a go-for in a Chinese drug store. He helps out whoever happens to need an extra pair of hands, and he always greets people with a broad and ready smile. Whenever I go there to fetch my herbal medicine, he will offer me cup of tea. Is Johnny a picture of contentment?

Another person that comes to mind is Steve, a graduate student. An outdoor enthusiast, he loves rock-climbing, mountain-biking, and all kinds of extreme sports. His favorite saying is: "All good," regardless of how unpleasant the situation. He even managed to tell himself that it was a great experience to be stranded in the airport all day and all night, when other passengers became increasing upset over the delay. Is Steve the epitome of contentment?

Positive psychology researchers have made great strides in recent years, especially in happiness studies, yet "contentment" remains a misunderstood phenomenon and an under-valued virtue. All the available scientific tools seem to come short, when we try to understand its true nature. Is it possible to reduce contentment to a set of cognitive-behavioral-physiological responses? Who can fathom the mystery and the paradox of contentment? How can we appraise its far-reaching effects? Are there answers to any of the following questions?

  • Is it based on having it all or giving one's all for a higher cause?
  • Is it the result of gratification of greed or the emptying of desires?
  • Is it a by-product of pride or humility?
  • Is it the overflowing of ecstasy or the deepening of purpose?
  • Is it momentary enjoyment or a stable disposition?
  • Is it self-actualization or self-transcendence?
  • Is it the absence of discontent or the transformation of dissatisfaction?
  • Is it the freedom to play and or the discipline to endure?
  • Is it the bliss of ignorance or the fruit of wisdom?
  • Is it perfect harmony with the external world or peace with self in one's innermost sanctuary?
  • Is it gaining the whole world or the possessing of one special pearl?
  • Is it fatalistic resignation or realistic acceptance of one's condition?
  • Is it a personality trait or an acquired attitude?
  • Is it a coping response or a philosophy of life?
  • Is it the condition of a satiated brute or the transcendental state of a soul deep in meditation?
  • Is it the fools' paradise of an easy rider or the trophy room of a Grand Prix champion?
  • Is it the euphoria high of a drug addict or the peak experience of a creative genius?
  • Is it the result of positive self-assessment or authentic self-knowledge?
  • Is it a song of the defiant human spirit or the prayer of a restful soul trusting in God?

Levels of contentment

The crux of the imbroglio may largely rest with our failure to understand contentment in all its duality and complexity. If we only accept the dictionary definition of contentment in terms of satisfying needs and desires, and if we only conceptualize it in biological and cognitive terms, we can only succeed in scratching the surface.

A major obstacle to contentment research of comes from a Western positivist mindset. We need to consider deeper existential and spiritual issues, and explore Eastern concepts of happiness in terms of contentment. For example, the Taoist approach to the subject of contentment is very differently from that of the mainstream psychology of America.

In order to achieve a fuller understanding of this virtue, we need to, at least, identify the different levels of contentment:

  1. 1. Biological - It results from the satiation of physical appetites
  2. Affective - It is a state of feeling satisfied or fulfilled
  3. Cognitive - It is based on positive cognitive assessment or external recognition of an accomplishment
  4. Defensive - It is rationalization of an unsatisfactory state of affair
  5. Spiritual - It is based on feelings of oneness with the transcendental reality or a personal knowledge of God
  6. Existential - It results from the discovery of meaning and purpose of life and human existence
  7. Philosophical - It is a based on a philosophy of life such as Taoism which transforms suffering into concepts conducive to acceptance and contentment

At which Levels are you operating, personally and scientifically?

Even a pampered pet, be it a Beijing piglet or a miniature poodle, knows all about Level 1 contentment. But such knowledge really has little to offer to the psychology of contentment.

Level 2 is also not very informative, without specifying whether it is based on Level 1 or higher levels of contentment. For instance, reveling in a major promotion (Level 3) is qualitatively and quantitatively different from defensive contentment (Level 4). A loser may console himself that he is glad that he did not get that promotion, because that would mean a lot of headaches and hard work. A lazy student may set his sight so low that he is happy with a C Grade. This type of defensive contentment may be termed pseudo contentment.

My thesis is that genuine contentment most likely operates at Levels 5 to 7. At these higher levels, psychology needs to intersect and integrate with philosophy and religion. We need to develop a positive existential psychology of genuine contentment. But what are the differences between pseudo and genuine contentment?

Pseudo contentment vs. genuine contentment

Pseudo contentment is transitory and dependent on external circumstances. It is based on instant gratification of desires or temporary escape from reality through defensive mechanisms, when desires are thwarted by circumstances. Pseudo contentment comes easy for those with money and power, which allow them to satisfy their every whim. But at the end, their contentment would prove delusional, because it cannot survive losses, sufferings and impending death.

Genuine contentment, on the other hand, is enduring and transcendental. It can survive the vicissitude of life and devastating traumas, because it comes from authentic living, a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose, an existential philosophy of life and an intimate knowledge of the sacred and divine.

Genuine contentment may be characterized as being deep-and-high rather than broad-and-wide. It is deep, because one needs to dig deep into one's inner resources and draw strength from the defiant human spirit. It is high, because one needs to be open to the spiritual realm, to connect with a higher purpose or a higher power. Therefore, genuine contentment is foreign to egotistic individuals consumed by selfish desires and ambitions.

My positive existential psychology of genuine contentment incorporates spirituality and existential thoughts. In this essay, I will explore the meanings of transcendental contentment and its practical implications for positive psychology.

Portraits of contentment

What would be the portraits of those who have learned the secret to genuine contentment? Here are their profiles:

  1. They delight in the abundance of simple things, while possessing nothing.
  2. They exhibit an extravagant spirit of generosity in spite of their personal poverty.
  3. They hold the whole world in their hands, yet they let it freely slip through their fingers.
  4. They are free from the demon of envy and the prison of fear.
  5. They are invulnerable to external threats, because of their secure sense of self-identify and intimate knowledge of a transcendental, spiritual reality.
  6. The have an inner sanctuary of peace and harmony, which transcends the tumults of the world.
  7. Their self-effacing demeanor and humble attitude endear themselves to others.
  8. They are able to enjoy the present, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
  9. Their joy is not diminished, even when their service and contributions are not recognized.
  10. They are able to forgive all those who have hurt them, even without any apology from their abusers.
  11. They are happy with what they have and who they are, but also strive to fulfill their potentials and responsibilities.
  12. They accept their place in the world, and yet they strive to overcome obstacles and pursue their calling.

Have you met anyone who fits the above description? Johnny and Steve, as described in the beginning of this paper, only possess some of the qualities. One of the persons who epitomizes contentment is Apostle Paul.

Apostle Paul: A case study

Apostle Paul was a Pharisee, a chief persecutor of early Christians, until he was converted near Damascus. There, he received the calling from Christ to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. He had to face many oppositions and difficulties in his missionary work. From the depth of his suffering, his joy and contentment spilled over:

"I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:11-13).

What a glorious anthem of contentment! The above paragraph is all the more remarkable, given that Paul wrote it under very harsh circumstances. He was alone in a jail cell, having gone through many trials and tribulations in his twenty odd years as a missionary. Notwithstanding his self-sacrifice and accomplishment, he was questioned and attacked by those, who "preach Christ out of envy and rivalry" (Philippians 1:15).

Here is a litany of the various problems he had experienced:

"… in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger…genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Corinthians 6: 4-10).

"We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Cor. 6:8, 9).

"I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches" (2 Cor.11: 26-28).

In spite of his troubles and struggles, he remained faithful to his calling: "But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil.3:13-14).

Paul's Letter to the Philippians was the happiest letter ever penned by him; there was not a single trace of bitterness, self-pity or complaint about being in such dire straits.

How could Paul be happy and content, when his most basic needs were not met? Which psychological theory can account for his resilience? What was the secret source of his boundless hope and contagious joy?

To understand Apostle Paul, we need to take his personal narrative seriously: - He learned the secrets from his apprenticeship under his master Christ; he experienced sufficiency and joy in his inner fellowship with Christ, regardless of the circumstances. Faith in God and dedication to his calling figure prominently in Paul's equation for contentment; however, there is also an element of mysticism that defies reasoning and calls for exploration.

In spite of his archaic language, the great Puritan Preacher Thomas Watson (1855) offered some insight into Paul's transcendental contentment in The Art of Divine Contentment:

Contentment is a divine thing: It becomes ours, not by acquisition, but infusion; it is a slip taken off from the tree of life, and planted by the spirit of God in the soul; it is a fruit that grows not in the garden of philosophy, but is of an heavenly birth: it is therefore very observable that contentment is joined with godliness, and goes in equipage: "godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim.6:6).

Contentment is an intrinsical thing: Contentment hath both fountain and stream in the soul…Thieves may plunder us of our money and plate, but not of this pearl of contentment, unless we are willing to part with it, for it is locked up in the cabinet of the heart; the soul which is possessed of this rich treasure of contentment, is like Noah in the ark, that can sing in the midst of a deluge"

Contentment is a habitual thing: It shines with a fixed light in the firmament of the soul. Contentment doth not appear only now and then, as some stars which are seen but seldom; it is a settled temper of the heart. (p.12)

Cultivating transcendental contentment

What can we learn from Apostle Paul and others who have mastered the secret to contentment that transcends circumstances and self-interests? How can we cultivate a spirit of contentment that shines through the darkest night?

Cognitive and behavioral responses simply cannot capture the depth and richness of genuine contentment, which demands total involvement of the whole person. Here is my outline of the ten steps towards personal transformation and contentment:

  1. Guard against the yeast of discontent - Covetousness, pride, envy, and selfishness are just some of the vices diametrically opposed to contentment. No amount of training in effective coping and positive thinking can get rid of these vices. Perfectionism, intolerance and critical attitudes can also sow seeds of discontent. A new set of values and virtues are needed to counteract the yeast of discontent. For instance, an enlightened spirit of detachment and self-emptiness can be an effective weapon against the evil of discontent.
  2. Guard against the culture of discontent - A culture of conspicuous consumption, rising expectations, and keeping-up-with-the-Jones breeds discontent. In a capitalist society, contentment is considered fatal to economical growth, because it reduces the competitive spirit and our hunger for consumption. For liberal democracy to avoid the human costs of ruthless competition and irresponsible consumption, we need to develop alternative models of sustainable growth and a counterculture of simplicity and selfless idealism.
  3. Accept our limitations - Acceptance of our own weaknesses and negative life circumstances is the necessary starting point for personal growth and transformation. However, acceptance does not imply resignation, fatalism or belief in karma; it simply means facing the reality, no matter how bleak, and being at peace with oneself in spite of the struggles. Paradoxically, acknowledging our helpless state is more beneficial than denial or delusion, because only acceptance leads to tragic optimism that can survive the worst kinds of traumas.
  4. Affirm in our own worth - We can live with ourselves without grumbling or despair, only when we can affirm the intrinsic meaning and value of our existence. Even when everything is taken away from us, we can still maintain a sense of personal significance and believe that there is something worth living and dying for.
  5. Discover our self-identity and true calling - A clear sense of who we are and why we are here is essential for affirmation. Authentic self-knowledge and a deep conviction of our mission in life can carry us though losses, suffering and the valley of death. Contentment comes in through the back door, when we have discovered the meaning and purpose of our lives.
  6. Practice loving and giving -- Loving and giving go together. Those who look for love and intimacy without giving will only find rejection and loneliness. Love demands an object. Love is always an act of giving, serving and caring for the love object. It is more blessed to give than to receive, because the more we give to God and others, the more we receive in return. A contented soul is always extravagant in loving and giving.
  7. Practice diligence and faithfulness - No matter how trivial or unpleasant the task, we need to perform our duties faithfully and cheerfully, because this is the best way to get us through without destroying our spirit. Remember the inspiring spirituals sung by Negro slaves in their cotton fields.
  8. Practice gratitude - Count our blessings as long as there is a breath of life in us. Give thanks for the gift of life and remember the thousands of gifts of simple pleasures. It is all a matter of perspective. In every situation, one can either find grounds for complaints or reasons for thanksgiving. We have the freedom to choose the perspective, the attitude that brings contentment.
  9. Develop our spiritual maturity - Worldly attractions quickly fade away, once we have experienced God's faithfulness and grace. True spirituality does not depend on religious dogmas or rituals; it is based on dwelling in God and drinking freely from His spirit. Spiritual transformation, regardless of one's faith traditions, requires dedication and discipline, but it can yield lasting benefits, including peace and contentment.
  10. Develop an existential philosophy of life - For many people, life is a constant struggle, full of loss and suffering. Need to develop a mature, existential philosophy of life that enables us to transcend tragedies and traumas, and grants us inner serenity and contentment.

Conclusion

I can hear all kinds of protests to my idea of contentment:

  • How about the untouchables in India's caste system? Should they simply accept it as their karma and be content with their miserable existence?
  • How about the oppressed people living under brutal occupation? Should they simply surrender to their oppressors and be content with their lot?
  • How about those prisoners languishing in death row because of false accusations and an unfair judicial system? Should they quietly accept their fate and be content with the gross unjust treatment?
  • How about the addicts? Should they simply accept their addiction and be content with the highs and pains of being a druggie?
  • How about workers abused by their bosses? Should they just take the abuse on their knees? Should they pretend to be happy with their work in spite of the terrible treatment from their mean and unethical bosses?

Okay I hear you and your points are well taken. But in all the above situations, existential psychology maintains that contentment remains a viable choice. We can always choose the attitude to be content, regardless of the situation; that's why it is call transcendental.

The second important point to keep in mind is that inner contentment is not incompatible with a healthy dosage of discontent. Take Apostle Paul for instance. He was content whatever the situation, yet he remained discontent with regard to knowing and serving Christ.

Similarly, we need to choose contentment for our mental health; but we also need to take courageous actions to improve the situation for the betterment of humanity. The secret is to achieve a balance between accepting our place in the world and aspiring to develop our potential and improve the human condition.

Among several competing archetypes of contentment, I am only familiar with Apostle Paul as depicted earlier and the self-actualized person as depicted by Maslow. The former is based on faith in God, service to others and the emptying of the self; the latter is based on personal growth, achieving one's full potential and fulfillment of all one's basic needs. Paul's model is closer to my existential model and is probably more applicable to those who are trying to find contentment in the midst of loss, suffering and death.

Henri Nouwen in Seeds of Hope (1989) observed that "the victims of poverty and oppression were often more deeply convinced of God's love than we are" (p.xiv). These individuals have discovered Apostle Paul's secret simple abundance and rich poverty. Positive existential psychology invites researchers to examine the paradoxes of contentment.

Another year has just died in a splendid sent-off. Let's say good-bye to all our sorrows, disappointments, heartbreaks and grief. Let's welcome a brand new year with all its challenges and hopes. Let's embrace living and dying with contentment, because there is something worth fighting for.