The more you know

Happiness is an illusion, better pursuing contentment

I want to share with you a personal point of view on the difference between being happy and feeling happy. I will start with a clinical case.

They met at a party; and it was love at first sight just like we read in the novels. After an exciting courtship, they married, and as soon as they shared a desire to expand their family, Jennifer announced the happy news of her pregnancy.

They were in seventh heaven: from their first meeting they had shared only pleasant moments. Everyone who knew them agreed: their married life was full of happiness.

Unfortunately that magical moment had to end. The first setback came only a few days after Annie’s birth: the baby girl slept little at night and suffered from persistent colic; Jennifer, as a new mom, had morale on the ground, and a growing sense of guilt and melancholy had taken possession of her to bring her to hospitalization in a psychiatric ward (it was the first time that had to do with psychiatry); the fear that it might harm Annie or herself had spread among the family and the circle of friends.
The epilogue of this story is shocking: despite the most scrupulous medical assistance and nursing care, Jennifer commits suicide by throwing herself from a balcony on the second floor. Her family and friends fall into an abyss of pain, and the medical staff who took care of her also feel abandoned.


Given the enormous obstacles in chasing happiness or promoting its sustainability, if we have enough luck to achieve it, what choices do we humans have? I have not met any valid answer to this question, not even by the steadfast confident supporters of the contemporary school of positive psychology. So I support the following: since we have the means to distinguish between happiness and satisfaction, we can examine how they differ and, in doing so, identify an alternative to the pursuit of futile happiness.

Happiness, derives from the Norse word ‘hap’, which means luck or opportunity; the expression ‘happy-go-lucky’ [literally: ‘happiness-go-luck = light-heartedness’, editor’s note] is representative of a specific association. Many Indo-European languages ​​confuse the concepts of happiness and luck. ‘Glück’ in German, for example, can be translated as either ‘happiness’ or ‘opportunity’, while ‘eftihia’, the Greek word for happiness comes from ef, good, and from tixi, luck or opportunity.

Thus, a mother may be lucky enough to feel ecstatic when she responds to her child’s amused play, only to see it evaporate a couple of years later, replaced by the first symptoms of autism. In the story we started this article with, Jennifer could have held on until her baby started sleeping peacefully without the painful colic of the first few weeks of life.

Contentment derives from the Latin contentus and is usually translated as ‘satisfaction’. Here there are not many meanings to confuse us. In my opinion, feeling happy refers to a deep-rooted and lasting acceptance of oneself and one’s own value, together with a sense of self-realization, meaning and determination.

In conclusion, satisfaction can potentially serve as a solid basis for experiencing and appreciating episodes of joy and pleasure.

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