P1080017Which do you aim for: contentment or happiness? No, they aren’t the same thing, even though happy is content in French. Happiness is bonheur, while contentment is contentement.

Contentment is the long-term satisfaction or deep fulfillment that comes from the cumulation of good times, good relationships. Happiness is the sugar high of buying something new, getting promoted, winning. It’s fun, it’s exciting, but it doesn’t sustain.

So much of our lives are geared toward the attainment of happiness, probably because it’s more immediate and it feels darn good. But contentment is what counts.sunset 2Children are probably the best example of this. It seems they are a source of unending demands and pressures—starting with 4 a.m. feedings and diaper changes, evolving and expanding to learning to drive, then university expenses and so on. Petit enfant, petit soucis. Grand enfant, grand soucis. (Small child, small worries. Big child, big worries.) Research shows parents are less happy than people who are childless.

But children enrich our lives immeasurably. When this tiny person comes into the world, we think we have never loved anyone so much. And yet that love keeps growing and growing.sunset 5Of course being a parent isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. I have nothing but respect for anybody who decides they don’t want to have kids. The conscious choice is so much better than those who have kids because they just happened or had them because of social pressure, and then they don’t take care of them.

We can get contentment in other ways—from other family ties, from work, from friends, from faith, from activities like gardening or sports. Contentment requires an effort over time, and that effort might be disagreeable but the results are worth it.sunset 3Happiness, by contrast, is a quick fix. Amazon Prime. Want it, get it. Now.

Not to knock that, but no amount of shopping or partying or whatever will fill an empty soul.

Life in France is particularly suited to prioritize contentment over happiness. Shops close in the evenings and on Sundays and holidays—no 24/7 here. Retail therapy takes a back seat to family time.chateau rooftopsBusinesses around here also tend to offer a two-hour lunch break. Meals, in fact, are sacred, a time for conversation and sharing. There is nothing I love more than having a dinner with friends, regardless what is on the table (though that is consistently amazing). At mealtimes, everything else stops.

The absence of air conditioning is another exercise in contentment over happiness. It can feel so good to walk out of the heat and into a cold room. But once you cool down, you need a sweater. Not in France. We slowly adapt to the heat, take the time to walk a little more slowly, choose the shade. And after a while, the high temps actually feel comfortable. Didn’t we wait all winter for these warm days? (It helps that we have cool nights and low humidity.) It’s easier to get out and enjoy the summer when your body is used to the heat.sunset 1Maybe I’m already getting old and crotchety, but I am losing my taste for thrills. The curtains in our apartments were a huge pain (in every sense of huge) to make, but I doubt I would admire them as much now if I had just ordered them online. The antique furnishings that were found from so many sources and brought back to life. It would have been easier to just buy reproductions, or to do the all-modern-in-an-old-building look that’s so popular. But the hard way is so much more satisfying and unique.pyrennees 2From my open window, I hear my friend Merle singing (merle is French for blackbird, so I call him that, though he is operatic and not very country at all), and the cigales thrumming. I smell the grass and the freshly cut wheat from a nearby field. Later I will read the latest installment of the novel my kid is writing and marvel at how these ideas came together and wonder where this vocabulary was picked up (in a good way—it isn’t naughty at all; instead, some of the turns of phrases are bowl me over with their artfulness). I will hang laundry to dry in the breeze and smell fresh in a way no fabric softener can replicate. I will make a pie crust for tonight’s quiche. I will do work that I love. These things give life sweetness and meaning. Nothing thrilling, but all deeply satisfying.sunset 4


38 thoughts on “Happy or Content?

    1. That is interesting! New to me. I love etymology (and if you do, check out the podcast “The Allusionist.”)
      I have nothing against happiness as in joy, however fleeting it may be. Like the Pharrell Williams song. But it is silly to think it will last.


  1. When each of my four daughters was born I quietly and secretly wished them not beauty nor brains nor wealth nor happiness but content. You are so right, content is the richest of rewards in life and often the most overlooked. Of course moments of happiness or joy are deeply marvellous but in the end being content is unbeatable. I loved this post. Really loved it. Thank you. PS: Merle sounds adorable!

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      1. I guess you would have to ask them that question. I worry about the constant intrusions that come with modern communications. My eldest (now 30) has just been with me for a week and she visibly relaxed and started noticing when I confiscated her phone! The others are 22, 24 and 27 and less and less enamoured with the art of Social Media … I think they will all get there. And be fat layabouts like their mum 😂

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      2. There you go: social media drugs our brain with feel-good hormones when we get likes, but it isn’t the same as dinner with family.
        As a storm is starting to rage, I will be shutting off the computer and enjoying a quiche with mine, and also enjoying the the rain. I can almost hear my garden singing with joy. Talk about happy.

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      3. No. Dinner with the family is FAR better! We had the most encroyable tempête last night. On the balcony of my soon to be given up apartment with the drawing room lighting up with the foudre ….now good it can be fr no effort at all. THAT is content! Enjoy yours 😊

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  2. I like the sentiment you express so well here, even if I’m not convinced about your definitions. Mostly I settle for contentment, which I would roughly define as having what you need to be well. But when I’m at my best I strive for happiness in life, which to me involves a slightly higher level of satisfaction and well-being, of stretching your limits and working towards goals. Also I think it is in the nature of people who are creative and have an artistic bent (not to be pretentious!) to be dissatisfied with the status quo, which may often come across as discontent, but is not equivalent to being unhappy. There’s clearly a lot of crossover between the two meanings, and you are right to make us think about it.

    This post made me remember an old saying or proverb that is corny but says it so well: “Happiness is like a bird. You can chase it and chase it and never find it. And then one day, when you’re sitting quietly, it comes up and sits on your shoulder.”

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  3. When I was young I likened ‘contentment’ to the old phrase ‘a contented cow’ so being content was not a thing I strived for. Now I seem ‘contentment’ as Peaceful. A place that so many of us long to be – myself included.

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  4. My boys’ teacher who is French used to always say that phrase and I say it often to others as well as to myself often! Lovely post and may you continue to enjoy Merle and the smell of fresh cut wheat.

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  5. You have just summed up my feelings about life. I think happy is a peak experience….something to strive for. Contentment to me feels more soft and gentle…an every day feeling of pleasure in the rituals of life. Happy is always more, and then more again. It can not be sustained…the problem is when one persons happy is opposite to another persons happy….

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  6. Beautifully written! I prefer contentment. The slow relaxing type of feeling you get day to day, being outside, listening to the birds, watching the squirrels. I don’t know how hot it gets there, but without air conditioning where I live, it would be extremely uncomfortable.

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  7. As you so aptly put it, happiness is a quick fix. It’s a jolt that is pleasurable, but it isn’t sustainable. Contentment is subtly different and can come from so many sources and places, outside of ourselves as well as within.

    I agree that once we become parents, we live with an undercurrent of worry that mars a more carefree sort of happiness we can experience if we have no such visceral bonds. And the degree to which our attachment to our children is physical — whether the kids are biologically ours or adopted — is undeniable.

    I find the preoccupation with happiness in the US these recent years to be a disturbing trend. Putting our own happiness above honor, meaning, and other more “old school” values seems counter to the very notion of anything approaching living with oneself in a pleasant state. Certainly, to me. And that leads me to the issue of pleasure.

    Pleasure is its own animal… delightful and also surprising, with many sources, different for each of us, always evolving — neither happiness nor contentment per se, but perhaps a set of second cousins.

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  8. Funny that you think you are old and crotchety! For almost two decades I did public relations and fundraising for a not for profit. I made a comment about the importance of happiness to a 60 something (younger than I am now!) social worker and she gave me the rolled eye, the arched eyebrow: the look. “You young people these days think happiness is the end-all, be-all. The long game is contentment.” She was right, for course. I think the French do so much right. (And btw a few years ago I found out my ancestors married into one of the oldest French Huguenot families in America!) My husband said, “That explains, a lot.” He still has some “splainin”to do! Enjoy your seasons and the time you are in.

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    1. Ha! 60 is still far enough away! I heard an interesting podcast recently about how the emphasis on happiness has young people all mixed up. The whole “do what makes you happy” thing. But that could well mean lying in bed all day. Do what is meaningful, or what fulfills your life! That could be hard and frustrating, but in the end, really worthwhile.


  9. What a pleasure to read your posts. Beautifully written and the lovely photos that go with them.
    Bonheur – is the word I always heard when all the family met, and they were really happy times. 12 at the table once a week, enjoying dinner, conversation and just being all together. We still remember.
    After reading, I realise Contentment is what I wish for.

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  10. Oh so thought provoking!! Here’s a twist on the happy/content thing. Many many years ago I heard the lines “Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get”. Contentment isn’t in there but to me, it parallels with happiness and that makes so much sense. I like contentment – it means I’m happy with the way my life is. It’s like looking around me and saying to myself ” Life is good”.

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      1. Ah yes! A spinoff of “be careful what you wish for … you may get it!” All wonderful points to ponder. Really love this post – it has given me much to think about.

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  11. What a wonderful post, and a reminder to live in the moment, and to take pleasure from the little things in life…hanging the laundry and enjoying the fresh scent, listening to your little bird in the morning, making dinner. Life is crazy and busy and we need to step away and enjoy it because it goes so very fast.

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  12. Great post! I agree with the concept – I view happiness and excitement as momentary feelings. I’m certainly not happy when I tear a ligament in my knee, but I can still be content. For myself, part of contentment is focusing on the positive. I certainly wasn’t happy when I tore a ligament in my knee, but I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support I received as a fairly new transplant to France. Or learning how to budget (a skill that has served me well since) as a result of being on disability after a bad car accident.

    I think it’s the difference between finding a certain pleasure in your “boring Wednesday nights” and seeking to never have “boring Wednesday nights.”

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