Is being contented equal to happiness? Is being happy equal to being contented?

To me this is hard to determine as there are people I know who are contented with their lot, but are not completely happy as they would like more. The same can be said for being happy. There are those who can be said to be happy but not contented because again they would like more.

What do teachings from philosophers tell us about contentedness vs happiness?

1 Answer 1


The main difficulty here is that 'happiness' has a variety of senses. The following analysis may help, however.



There is a use of 'happy' in which the term simply refers to a feeling, typically of fairly short duration. (It is not claimed that in all utterances of the expression 'I am feeling happy' the term 'happy' is used in this way.) How, if at all, is this feeling logically related to the circumstances in which it occurs ? Broadly speaking, there are two ways in which a feeling may be so related. The feeling may have to be related to an object; either some object, as opposed to no object at all, or an object of a certain kind. The feeling may have to be associated with a certain attitude on the part of the person who has the feeling. (D. A. Lloyd Thomas, 'Happiness', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 18, No. 71 (Apr., 1968), pp. 97-113 : 97.)


I have said that there is a use of the expression 'I am feeling happy' which refers to a feeling. This expression is not, however, always used for reporting the occurrence of a feeling. Expressions such as 'I am feeling happy with . . .' or ' about . . .' are not primarily used to refer to feelings. For example, the question 'Are you feeling happy about your new job ? ' could be answered with ' Yes; my colleagues are less dull than I had feared, and the work is stimulating', without there being any particular feeling when it is answered 'Yes ', and without it being implied that the person must have felt happy when doing the job or thinking about it. It is being said that the person is reasonably well content or satisfied with the job. (Lloyd Thomas : 101.)


It is characteristic of the adverbial forms of words that they are the most behaviouristic. This can be illustrated by the occurrence of 'happily' in, for example, 'The Leader of the Opposition happily delivered one devastating argument after another against the Minister's policy '. As far as feelings are concerned, the Leader of the Opposition may privately be miserable, but the report may nonetheless be true because of how he delivered the arguments. ((Lloyd Thomas : 103.)


Sometimes someone will claim that he has been happy over a relatively long period, for example, that he has had a happy life. This use of' happy' can be distinguished from the preceding ones. The person who makes this claim is not saying that he has felt happy every moment of his life, and the claim would not be falsified even if he had not felt happy (as distinguished from 'had felt unhappy') most of the time. Nor is it true that if a person has had a happy life he must have been experiencing some attenuated feeling of happiness the whole time. This use is distinguishable from the second use because, if a man says that he has had a happy life, he is saying more than that his life has been merely satisfactory: he is saying that it has been good. This use is also different from the third use, as it is neither necessary nor sufficient for a man to have had a happy life that he should have frequently (or perhaps even ever) behaved happily. ((Lloyd Thomas : 104.)

'Content' has made only a brief appearance so far. LLoyd Thomas goes on to address the relation of happiness to contentedness in more detail, however.

Happiness and contentedness

Contentedness is one of the standards by which the fourth use of' happy ' is applied. Generally speaking, contentedness is not so much a separate standard for the happy life as an aspect of all standards for the happy life. Part of being happy in the fourth use is recognizing that one's life measures up to the standards set for it. However, there is a sense in which contentedness may appear to be a standard in its own right to be set beside other standards. It, may be suggested that one may be happy by merely being contented. One may be more easily happy if one does not set one's standards (i.e., one's genuine standards) too high and so can be reasonably sure of attaining them.

The pseudo-standard of contentedness is closely related to one form of asceticism. If one takes this approach to its extreme, the happy life will be one in which only the most minimal demands are made so that the chances of satisfying these demands are good. The person who tries to adopt contentedness as his ideal has confused the requirement that any life, if it is to be happy, must satisfy the standards set for it with those standards themselves. He has made the satisfaction of a standard itself into his standard. Having done this, he thinks his best policy is to lower such genuine standards as he has as much as possible. Such an approach to the happy life, besides being confused, may fail in practice. If success is too easy, one may be dissatisfied with what one has got even when one succeeds. This is another aspect of the point that one is not completely free to choose one's standards for the good life. Not only may they be the wrong standards for a certain person; they may also be too high or too low. It is probably true that a lowering of standards for the good life will most often lead to people not being happy rather than being unhappy.

Mill claimed that one may be more contented, but not necessarily more happy, with a pleasure of lower quality than with one of higher quality. It might be argued that this does amount to saying that a person may be happier with a pleasure of lower quality. Hence Mill cannot say both that an action is right if it leads to the greatest happiness, and that it is right if it leads to most pleasures of high quality. For someome may be happier (i.e., more content) with a pleasure of lower quality than with one of higher quality. This objection to Mill depends on the assumption that 'happy' means the same as ' contented'. Mill denies this so that he can consistently claim that a person who enjoys superior kinds of pleasure may be less content but not less happy than one who enjoys inferior kinds.

In the first and third uses Mill is right to deny an equivalence between 'happy' and ' contented'. To feel happy is not the same as to feel con- tented, and to behave in a happy way is not to behave in a contented way. In the second use Mill would be wrong: as we have seen, 'happy' in this use does mean much the same as 'contented'. However, this does not refute Mill's real point, namely that a life in which the higher pleasures are enjoyed may be a happier, though not necessarily a more contented life, than one in which the lower pleasures are enjoyed. This is a proper employ- ment of the fourth use of ' happy'. Mill's assertion, translated on the basis of the fourth use, is that contentment may rank low on one's standard for the happy life, while enjoying the higher pleasures may rank high. If we were to adopt such standards for the happy life, we could say that a person who enjoys the higher pleasures but is not contented is nevertheless happier than one who enjoys the lower pleasures and often is contented. If one holds that a contented life is all that is necessary for measuring up to one's standards for the happy life, then to be more contented is to be more happy; but if one thinks that the happy life must have more to it than mere content- ment, then to be more contented is not to be more happy. Mill's remark shows that he thinks that being contented is not all that is required to measure up to the standards for the good life. (Lloyd Thomas : 112-3.)

Hope this goes some way towards clarifying the relation of happiness to contentedness.

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