abundance and rich poverty: The positive psychology of contentment
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
- 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
- Is it momentary enjoyment or a stable disposition?
- Is it self-actualization or self-transcendence?
- Is it the absence of discontent or the transformation
- Is it the freedom to play and or the discipline
- Is it the bliss of ignorance or the fruit
- 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
- Is it a coping response or a philosophy of
- 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?
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
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
- 1. Biological - It results from the satiation
of physical appetites
- Affective - It is a state of feeling satisfied
- Cognitive - It is based on positive cognitive
assessment or external recognition of an accomplishment
- Defensive - It is rationalization of an unsatisfactory
state of affair
- Spiritual - It is based on feelings of oneness
with the transcendental reality or a personal knowledge of God
- Existential - It results from the discovery
of meaning and purpose of life and human existence
- 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
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
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
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:
- They delight in the abundance of simple things,
while possessing nothing.
- They exhibit an extravagant spirit of generosity
in spite of their personal poverty.
- They hold the whole world in their hands,
yet they let it freely slip through their fingers.
- They are free from the demon of envy and
the prison of fear.
- They are invulnerable to external threats,
because of their secure sense of self-identify and intimate knowledge
of a transcendental, spiritual reality.
- The have an inner sanctuary of peace and
harmony, which transcends the tumults of the world.
- Their self-effacing demeanor and humble attitude
endear themselves to others.
- They are able to enjoy the present, no matter
how difficult the circumstances.
- Their joy is not diminished, even when their
service and contributions are not recognized.
- They are able to forgive all those who have
hurt them, even without any apology from their abusers.
- They are happy with what they have and who
they are, but also strive to fulfill their potentials and responsibilities.
- 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
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
"… 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).
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I can hear all kinds of protests to my idea
- 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.