What is contentedness?


Photography: Andrés Vanegas Canosa, Colombia

We live in a world of thoughts and emotions; so what could be more important than our sense of contentedness?

Firstly, let’s go by the book – The Oxford English Dictionary. This gives us only a dry definition, but one that’s nonetheless useful and provides a point to embark upon a deeper, more fleshed-out understanding. We can go on from here to briefly explore the idea of how contentedness may relate to our personal sense of self in being, and why in my opinion, contentedness is the most pivotally important aspect of all our psychological worlds.

Expanding on this personally held view, I would go so far as to say that the impulse to realise contentedness, above happiness, is in fact the primary influence upon a great deal of our everyday experience – our lived, workaday reality. We can explore that particular assertion elsewhere on the site, and more thoroughly still in my book The Sway of Contentedness, where I make a detailed analysis of the matter. But just for now, let’s reach for that weightiest and most authoritative of dictionaries . . .

We so often mistakenly think that acquiring more – wealth, status, relationships – will bring us contentedness

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the adjective of (being) ‘content’ as ‘having one’s desires bounded by what one has; desiring nothing more or different; satisfied, contented’, and also as ‘acceptance of conditions or circumstances, acquiescence’. Acquiescence itself is defined as ‘to remain at rest; to rest satisfied’. As a noun the O.E.D. defines ‘content’ as ‘the fact, condition or quality of being contented; contentedness’. These definitions indicate that a component of mental passivity inheres in any such state.

So, contentedness sounds like something close to what’s meant by the terms ‘gratification’ and/or ‘relief’, though it isn’t synonymous. There’s a subtle but critically important distinction which itself goes beyond the indicated psychological passivity just noted. Let’s now clarify what that additional difference is.

Pleasurableness and gratification; freedom from anxiety – these states alone cannot bring contentedness

In the O.E.D. the term ‘gratification’ is defined as ‘a reward, recompense, gratuity; a bribe’, and also ‘to give pleasure to; to please, oblige; to do a favour to’. The definition of the act of ‘gratifying’ is defined as ‘to please by compliance; to humour, indulge’. The term ‘relief’ is defined as ‘ease or alleviation given to or received by a person through the removal or lessening of some cause of distress or anxiety’.

What is notable in those definitions, as distinct from that of contentedness, is that in no sense is there indicated a condition which is necessarily without want in some degree; neither is there any certain sense of fulfilment. In short, there’s nothing absolute or unqualified in either of the conditions of ‘being gratified’ or ‘sensing relief’. In other words, we can still feel gratification, and we can still sense relief, whilst at the same time remaining subtly discontented, which of course is not a passive state of mind.

There’s a passivity in contentedness, and a desireless aspect too. Together, these conditions free us to live more fully, and we are less bound by selfish dictates

So whilst being related, contentedness is in fact of a different order to any manifest gratification or feeling of relief. Rather, contentedness is entirely unqualified; it’s absolute in its precise definition. It is, in its purest form, a desireless state, though without that remotely implying any lifeless sense of disengagement or neglectful disregard. In being desireless, this contented and reposeful attitude of mind brings with it a liberating sense of freedom from our ceaseless egoical striving and self-interested orientations. And it’s this desireless absence of selfhood that brings about the mental passivity.

At some fundamental level, we know much of this, and through contemplation are able to confirm beyond doubt in reflective awareness our hidden, yet innate knowledge. This is why I feel certain that it’s quite correct to regard contentedness as the primary influence that acts upon both our emotional welfare, as well as upon our mundane or worldly lived experience. It’s this naturally inhering knowledge that we each possess that effectively dictates our personally typified approaches to life, its challenges, and whatever worldly aspirations we hold.

Our emotional energies are constantly drained in an endless pursuit of desires and aversions

Whilst we’re not consciously aware of the subtle influencing power of contentedness, we may become so through directing awareness contemplatively and introspectively. We can then see how and why our habituated and typified approaches to life seldom meet the objectives we intuit in seeking any state of contentment. What we discover is that we invariably approach our objective through the orientations of self-interest. More specifically, we engage an egoically motivated series of desires and aversions in the vain hope that contentment may attach to, or be possessed by, the self-construct we hold of ourselves but which itself resides only in belief and narrative.

It’s the imagined self which is never satisfied; it hungers for more of what it judges to be good, and less of what it conceives as bad

So contentedness, either as it’s felt, or in our awareness of its absence, is very much bound-up with our own sense of self in being. There’s an undeniable correlation between the two which through contemplative reflection we’re able to confirm. What we see by means of intuitive insight is that the influencing power of contentedness is always subverted and neutralised by the intervention of selfhood, by the desires and aversions that the self-entity unthinkingly projects into experience.

Once we untangle the narrative beliefs that comprise this sense of selfhood, we see that our minds and bodies do indeed have a default state of passivity. It’s this default state that acts as the influencing factor that was spoken of; it’s this that exerts the subtle sway of contentedness in our workaday lives. Through intuitive insight gleaned in contemplative living, we progressively untangle the narrative beliefs of selfhood and the balance shifts away from heated, egoical striving and towards increasing states of contentment.

Some fancifully claim there are heaven worlds attainable in this life; yet in contentedness there is no desire for them in any case . . .

Contentedness, as I see it, is the ne plus ultra of the human animal. It’s a condition, beyond which, there’s nothing further attainable by the individual in terms of human goodness. Of course, there are all sorts of exotic states of mind; some people call them ‘spiritual’ experiences. You may have had them; so too have I now and again – aren’t they wonderful? Nevertheless, I’m going to be at odds with a great many when asserting there’s nothing attainable as a transcendent metaphysical abode for the psyche beyond a pure, desireless contentedness.

If you’re looking for something higher than that, something that will grant you transcendence into some psychical realm of religious cosmology, or some universal consciousness, then this really isn’t the right place for you. If you want to transcend your narrow and coalesced sense of self, then it may be. Certainly, if you want to explore that most fundamental of human urges which is the gravitational pull towards contentedness, then this is a good place to stop by now and again – perhaps to add your thoughts, or just to view those of others.


41 thoughts on “What is contentedness?

  1. Thank you. This brings sharply to my awareness how very HUNGRY I am! But then perhaps that hunger is in itself partly for the state of contentedness. As a painter I am always striving for at least 3 things: a satisfying, self-pleasing creation of an image, recognition by others that the image satisfies them too, recognition from others in the very practical and physical nature of purchase of one of those images! And that is just in one area of my life! Contentedness is found in many other areas, however, such as sitting with a cup of tea on the swing seat, watching the ducks on the pond, or walking on the beach with the dogs, or planting out seedlings in the garden. Indeed, possibly in the flow stage of making the work itself. But there are many more times in the day/week/year/decade when every single thing I do is driven by this hunger! And I expect that is almost a universal experience. So I will read on. 🙂

    • I appreciate you reading this rather dry article carefully as clearly you have, and thank you for adding your own perspective on the issue. As an artist, your opinions are tremendously valued here – truly this is so. When you say ‘As a painter I am always striving . . .’, I wonder whether this holds true during your work process? I imagine this isn’t so, as it would surely corrupt and inhibit your creativity would it not? You appear to be saying as much when you reference ‘the flow stage’ of your work. Perhaps the striving refers more to validations of your identity outside of the creative process, and how this flexes with having a sense of purpose, and of course, the need to earn a living? In other words, as a painter doing painting you’re not in fact striving, but within the on-going narrative you hold in belief as your ‘self’ as a painter, then that’s where the striving gets mixed in. We’re in agreement when you suggest that behind the ‘hunger’ (your word), there is a fundamental influence at play, which is itself a matter of emotional fulfilment – and also in concurring that this is all part of the human condition. So the big question is whether there’s a workaround to this predicament. Do you meditate/contemplate at all, I mean as a formalised practice, or perhaps view your work as a meditative absorption in itself? With gratitude and respect. HB.

      • Thank you Hariod. You are right, the flow of energy that happens when I am painting is different from the hungry sort of drivenness related to the business side of things I think. No wonder, perhaps, that I suffered a TIA ( mini stroke) on the very day of the opening of my solo show in Belfast this Easter.

        On the question of meditation, I have tried to practice, sometimes quite regularly, on and off over the last 10 years or so. I have read many of Pema Chodron’s great books, have attended insight meditation classes/week ends, and mindfulness groups. I have even led a weekly lunchtime hour meditation group for a few months, and in November attended a 10 day Vipasssana course near Pokhara in Nepal. I suppose I do regularly have quiet contemplative times, but my formal practice has slipped into non existence these last few months. All the reminders are reappearing now, and even many coincidences too elaborate to detail here. So thank you 🙂 Back to the ‘cushion’ or the chair for me thanks to your appearance in the comments sections of my blog 🙂

            • What a coincidence, I was only watching it (yet again), last week. The work that Kiran Bedi did at Tihar was exemplary. Although the viewing last week was the 3rd. or 4th. time I’ve seen it over the years, I once again choked up seeing those prisoners come out of the meditation hall at the end of the course. This for me was so evocative, being an old time retreatant and having a strong sense of what was going on. Those Goenka retreats are full on I know, so as the kids these days say, props to you Liz for your work in Nepal.

              • I’ve deliberately avoided commenting here on the health issue Liz, but am conscious of the significance of this and have been thinking of you this evening here in Somerset as you watch the dramatic weather there in Donegal. Much respect, Hariod.

    • Thank you so much for your gracious words of encouragement. I am still finding my feet with the art of short-form writing, and so feedback such as yours is invaluable and will help me on my way.

      I like your use of the word ‘dedication’; it does indeed take that in order to write effectively, such as though there is an easy flow occurring as the words are ‘heard’ within the mind of the reader.

      With much gratitude and respect, Hariod.

  2. Nice post; I think it is similar to how I see contentment. We need necessities and should be contented if we have them. Wanting unnecessary things, we are not contented. To want for nothing is to have it all, and that is my idea of contentment.

    May the Force be with you. _/\_

    • Thank you Jack, for considering my modest offering here and for adding a reflection of your own; I greatly appreciate both. In saying as you did that “to want for nothing is to have it all” you appear to have encapsulated in nine words that which it took me nine hundred to express.

      May the Force be with you. _/\_

  3. This state of contentment is where one gets to experience the bliss of the self within. All desires have burnt away and this is the state which Buddhists call “Nirvana”: freedom from the sorrows and miseries of life which are nothing other than self-created by the mind.

    • In the fullest expression of the term ‘contentedness’, I would say this is true Krishna Dev. I use that particular term as it allows for differing degrees of actualisation, whereas Nibbana does not of course. Thank you very much for reading this article and for adding a reflection of your own; I greatly appreciate it.

    • Thank you very much for your kindness and interest Christy. I have noticed your name here and there; you seem to be a high-profile blogger compared to me. You will only receive one post a month as a subscriber, though I would love to hear your reaction and hope to learn from any feedback you may feel is appropriate to provide.

      With gratitude and respect.


  4. The distinction you make between contentedness and gratification is so profoundly insightful, Hariod. And then your reference to [that same] contentedness as being “a desireless state” is, I think, marvellous. Wonderful post, Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for your continued interest in my offerings here Don, and for having the necessary forbearance to permit my occasionally labouring reflections. Now and again, that approach seems necessary I feel, so as to remind ourselves what it is that we really think, as against what we think we think.

      For example, and in relation to this article, most of us say that we “just want to be happy”, when in fact it is absurd to imagine that we could be happy all the time. So, that is what we think we think, but what we really think, I contend, is that we “just want to be content”, and which is potentially a far more enduring and realisable state.

      Perhaps another way of putting it is that when we say we “just want to be happy”, then what we really mean is that we want to be rid of both all subtle and gross feelings of discontent and unsatisfactoriness – and who amongst us would not want such a state? That state is, of course, contentedness itself.

      Many thanks also for your kind and generous words of appreciation Don; they are greatly valued.

      Warmest regards,


  5. An insightful analysis on contentedness Hariod. The commentators, too, have added value to the main article. To me, contentedness would mean being quite satisfied with what I have, or what I earn. It does not limit me to work and earn more. Yet at any point of time and situation I will not feel dissatisfied or frustrated, even if there is a loss.

    Thanks and kind regards,


    • Thank you very much for your interest and generous reflections Dilip; I greatly appreciate both. Yes, contentedness can take on various meanings, and satisfaction could perfectly well be one. I use the term myself as its strict definition connotes a state that is not qualified in any way, and can apply equally to mundane, worldly matters, as well as to the final objective of so-called ‘spiritual’ doctrines, philosophical analyses and secular ontological descriptions. In its highest sense, it may equate to the pinnacles of Buddhist and Advaita soteriologies, yet has the merit of being an everyday term that does not intimidate those not versed in such matters.

      Once again, many thanks for your interest Dilip,


  6. So glad I found your site. I have always felt for people who said, “I will be happy when…”. I work everyday to be happy with who I am. That is the way to contentment.

    • Thankyou very much for your interest, and I am pleased you have discovered my little corner of the blogging world. I like your philosophy of accepting who, or whatever it is, that you are, and wonder if you extend this into how you view others?

  7. Lovely post, Hariod. It seems to me that the richest people in this world are those who are content with what they have. Some people who seem to have everything and an endless supply of money to buy more, are always striving to get more, and are therefore unable to enjoy what they do have. I think gratitude always plays a huge role in being content. I was always taught to be grateful for what I have, and that teaching from my mom has stood me in good stead over the years, both through the lean times and the times of plenty.

    • Thankyou so much for your kind words and interest, Sylvia, both of which I greatly appreciate. You have found yourself here in my ‘pages’ section, away from my once-monthly ‘posts’, and so the flavour is not typical, but rather more prosaic than are those posts. Anyway, I agree completely with what you say here, and with the sagacious thoughts of your mother, in that gratitude is a fine counter to selfishness, and to self-centricity more generally. This is really what my site here is all about – the abandoning of self-centric cupidity and ignorance so as to dwell contentedly with whatever remains. What we find is that once self-interest in all its diverse manifestations abates, then contentedness necessarily does indeed remain. It is our natural state, prior to all notions of selfhood, and not dependent upon the receipt of gratifications of any kind. Rather, it is a state which offers itself freely, it being ultimately without ownership of any kind, meaning it is not a possession of the mind, such as a mood or mental state, but a condition of our total being in awareness and body, if that makes sense. Thankyou once again for your interest and kind words of encouragement, Sylvia.

      With all best wishes,


  8. This reminded me of a Bible verse. “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 all this through Him [Christ] who gives me strength.” ❤

    • Thankyou very much for this lovely quote, Anna, and also for your kind interest in this piece. Faith is indeed a tremendously powerful force, and we all appreciate how it can provide a vital sanctuary too, particularly in times of emotional need. Nonetheless, the focus of the discussions here on this site is on secular methodologies: phenomenology, ontology, the nature of consciousness, theory of mind, and so forth. These are quite highbrow terms perhaps, but my posts are very much anecdotal and, I hope, accessible in nature. Here is my latest should you be interested in getting a flavour: http://wp.me/p4wkZJ-ek

      My desire is to provide a forum that isn’t distinguished by religious or atheistic divides, but rather remains within the domain of personal experience, the play of subjectivity and objectivity, as well as the capacity of the human mind to step outside of that dichotomy, however briefly. That said, I do know that a number of subscribers do hold to religious cosmologies and faith-based systems, notwithstanding my inability to engage meaningfully in that domain. In any case, may I reiterate my gratitude for your interest and engagement, both of which are greatly appreciated.

      With all best wishes,


  9. I am trawling through your journals, searching for something Clare asked me to look out for. Not found it yet, but I am having a stimulating time reading other things you have posted. Shame you don’t write so much now – great loss.

    • Hi Jackie! Thanks for your kind words of encouragement; I appreciate them, as well as your interest. I’m just having something of a lull on the writing front as I help a friend put a book together. I do have a post lined up to go out fairly soon, although it’s a slightly weird subject – all about nothing happening. I imagine the comment Clare is directing you towards is the following one, which I’ve not yet had time to respond to myself:


      • Yes, I found it eventually, and whilst I was doing so, I really had a good old read – thank you. I do wish I had the power to continue along these lines. It’s really good for a few days and then I get stressed, and it slips away like sand between the fingers.

        • Stress is so prevalent in the world, isn’t it? And for someone in your position, running a medium-sized business and constantly dealing with people and ever-changing situations, the opportunities for its arising mount exponentially – I know, because I’ve been in that very same position myself, Jackie.

          One thing that can help, I find, is to reduce the stressful state – i.e. take a reductionist perspective on experience – to what is actually present. Stressful states boil down to just thoughts and feelings, which is all that emotions ever are. They’re incredibly powerful, but have only two elements to examine.

          This isn’t to diminish their power, but it helps to deal with what we regard as an overwhelming flood of emotion if we examine more closely what’s actually happening. The mere fact of this examining creates a certain distance, a certain objectivity, and the beginnings of freedom from the clutches of any stressful state.

          Once we say to ourselves, “let me look at this thought stream; let me look at these feelings”, then their previous level of power over us at once diminishes. As the skill develops we see that thoughts are no more than insubstantial word-sounds drifting through the mind, like passing clouds – of themselves they’re entirely harmless.

          And we see that the feelings are, say, tension in the shoulders, a constriction in the abdomen and upper torso, and in seeing them we can gently begin to ease them out to normality. Be curious about the feelings, not judgemental. Go into them, almost as a friend approaching, gently asking, “what is this, what is the actual feeling here?”

          One important thing to always keep in mind is that the body responds much more slowly than does thought. So, whilst you can and will contemplatively break-up the thought-streams, and become equanimous about them almost as soon as you examine them, then the bodily tensions will still persist for, say, two to five minutes. Always keep this in mind.

          As with everything, practice brings the skills we’re after, and we just have to go gently with ourselves as we develop them. The mind is not mastered so easily, but with mind, we overcome the mind. By examining and reducing stressful states to their bare constituents, stress is no longer the monolithic obstacle it previously seemed.

          • You probably think I am being facetious, but I do enjoy your blogs and I try to subscribe to the live-in-the-moment bit. Actually, it’s just the reading that often helps – read a lot and apply a little. Interesting the bit about the body not coming out of the stress as fast as the mind.

  10. I don’t think that striving is egoical. People work, in the sense of striving and toiling, in order to make the world a better place. That’s why people do anything, once they’ve met their fundamental needs such as food and shelter. It’s wrong to assume that anyone who makes any effort is doing so for their own benefit. However, a contented state of mind is enjoyable and to wallow in that is purely selfish. Yes, you’re not trying to achieve fame or glory, but that’s not why people try to improve the world, when people strive and toil they might well be enjoying it.

    The feeling that everything is, and will be, alright is not identical to the truth or falsity of whether everything really is or will be alright. In fact there are lots of problems with the world, outside of oneself, whether oneself is happy or not. Part of the problem with helping with the problems of other people is to understand the problems of those people in the first place, in other words people might be suffering and yet we do not realise it.

    The novel A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley describes a dystopian future where the populace is blissed-out on soma and individuality has gone, and relationships are obscene; do we aim for everybody worldwide to be sat down, meditating, experiencing pleasure hedonistically? Is life that simple?

    I think that contentedness is a chemical state within the brain and for sure we can cultivate it, but the attitude that nobody else has this magic key to success and happiness is patronising and avoids reality. On the other hand, it is really nice to feel content.

    • Many thanks, Bill, for your interest and considered response. I will try to address your (quite reasonable) objections each in turn.

      I disagree with your assertion that ‘People work, in the sense of striving and toiling, in order to make the world a better place.’ You appear to make this assertion in contradistinction to what I said here: ‘[Contentedness is] absolute in its precise definition. It is, in its purest form, a desireless state, though without that remotely implying any lifeless sense of disengagement or neglectful disregard. In being desireless, this contented and reposeful attitude of mind brings with it a liberating sense of freedom from our ceaseless egoical striving and self-interested orientations. And it’s this desireless absence of selfhood that brings about the mental passivity.’ Nowhere have I claimed that striving to meet an objective is necessarily egoical or self-interested, and would ask you not to take the word ‘ceaseless’ too literally — perhaps ‘recurrent’ would be a better term, albeit the impulse does remain ceaseless, I maintain; it being an evolved predisposition. But taking it out of the abstract, let’s look at some simple task, like digging the vegetable plot. In striving to do a good job, or simply to complete the task, we can say there’s nothing driving this objective egoically. Often, though, when we look a little deeper, we discover that the desire to meet the objective is rooted in achieving not only a job well done (or completed), but in the anticipated satisfaction (an introspected feeling) we shall derive in consequence. I see very little evidence that humans generally (or widely) ‘seek to make the world a better place.’ Of those that do, very few do so purely altruistically, though most invariably would claim otherwise. Call me a cynic if you will, but self-interest and status-seeking are not traits so easily eradicated.

      You go on to argue (in effect) that pacifying one’s own avarice and self-interested pursuits is ‘selfish’. This claim is often made of those who use meditative or contemplative practices in order to understand themselves, others and the world better. I accept that many of the New-Age and Self-Help practices — their various nostrums and vague platitudes — are intrinsically selfish in that the effect behind many of them is one of burnishing the ego, bringing about a lofty sense of purity and otherness. I think we’d agree this is all bullshit, driven (almost invariably) by money. Still, it’s a mistake to presume that all self-analysis (via introspective means) is of the same category. Whilst introspection is an unreliable witness, it nonetheless uncovers a lot of perfectly valid evidence as to the true state state of affairs — far more than would otherwise be yielded by remaining anchored purely in the abstractions of the intellect. I argue for a combination of the two: experiential analysis (like, say, Husserlian phenomenology) along with one’s own capacity to reason and learn from others’ reasoning.

      I’m a pragmatist, Bill, and a believer in setting one’s own house in order prior to attempting to heal the world. As for your closing remark, ‘that contentedness is a chemical state within the brain and for sure we can cultivate it, but the attitude that nobody else has this magic key to success and happiness is patronising and avoids reality’, then you appear to have missed the central point that there really is no ‘magic key’, that contentedness inheres in the human animal once we remove the obstacles that block or obscure it. There is nothing magical about the process, nothing spiritual, and really, nothing special or privileged. The argument about Identity Theory (Hard Materialism) in respect to brain states is best left for some other day. I’m a Monist, but not an Identity Theorist seeking to eradicate consciousness.

  11. Thank you for this article which has catalyzed so many comments! I am a fan of “enough” and “gratitude” and “contentedness”. I do still find my ego striving for validation (regarding how many people view and find meaning in one of my blog posts, for example!), but I am gently determined to remind myself of how many things — food, clothing, shelter, modest income, electricity, fresh water, friends — I can be grateful for on a daily basis.

    • Hello Will. Many thanks for your interest, for your kind and thoughtful response also. Now, I have a bone to pick with you! After visitng your site a couple of days ago I ended up with your ‘Water’ running through my brain for about three hours! (By the way, I’m quite a Cole Porter fan myself, too.)

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