Today I want to talk about the concept of happiness versus contentedness. I think most people would know what you meant if you discussed being happy but I feel that often we confuse happiness with contentedness. For me happiness is a much more fleeting emotion, centred around our current situation. If we eat a piece of chocolate we often feel a high, an upwards lift, but it is often tempered with a negate longer term effect. Contentedness, on the other hand, is a much more steadied emotion, calm and neither up nor down. It is also much less direct and it's cause can often be more difficult to tie down.
So how does happiness come about? Well, its roots seem to be in the pre-frontal cortex, the youngest part of the human brain. There is where a lot of rational thought occurs and is the area in which we spend most of consciousness. It is also the area of our brain over which we can exert the most control. We can easily change what we are immediately thinking about or doing, so we can make ourselves immediately happy. One of the best example of this can be seen with substances such as drugs and alcohol. Both have been known to numb negative emotions and create a positive sense of happiness. The same can be said of sexual promiscuity with a newly aquainted stranger. Again it may cause an immediate sense of happiness but the effects of such can be quite negative to our longer term goals.
In contrast to this contentedness is formed, in my opinion, in the older parts of the brain that deal with longer term emotions and what we would call the sub-conscious. Here is where a lot of our anxieties, troubles and any underlying issues tend to reside. These bubble up at random times in response to things that don't often seem to make much sense. This is also why we refer to not dealing with negative emotions as "burying" them. We don't deal with them immediately, to avoid our un-happiness, and instead allow them to enter our deeper sub-conscious brain. Because contentedness comes from a much deeper part of our brain, it can feel much more difficult to get a handle on. Cause and effect seems much less entwined and the emotions arising from this part of our brain can often seem quite chaotic. What created them is often so removed from their eventual symptom that we feel like the brain is acting in a random way.
In short I believe that we can have a happy young brain and a happy old brain (A painful neurological simplification, but a useful one none the less). If we feed our young brain mental chocolate it will be happy but paradoxically this could be creating a situation in which our old brain is becoming increasingly worried, upset and anxious. The opposite is also often true in that to make our old brain happy we have to focus on longer term contentedness, often to the detriment of our immediate happiness. A good example of this is a task such as garden-work. We cut the grass and pull up weeds because the garden has gotten to the point where it needs done. It's not a task we particularly enjoy (Although, admittedly, I do now) but we do it because we know that if we leave it, we will end up in a worse situation and the stress will cause us to be in a state that is not content. The immediate happiness of watching our favourite TV show or doing something else enjoyable is tempered with the longer term discontent. To quote the bible, "When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things." Children, almost pathologically, seek out happiness with little thought towards contentedness. As adults we try to explain to them why it's important to not just eat ice cream all the time or watch TV until their eyes glaze over. The truth is that we are often so ill informed of our own discontent that we are not best placed to actually explain to them why this is important. With a little work to understand though, we can be.