It was 2014, and my research team—including the GGSC’s Dacher Keltner—was studying a remote group of former nomads high in the Himalayas of Eastern Bhutan. This was a place that no outsider had ever traveled to before, and we were about to make first contact with one of the three last uncontacted villages on planet earth. We traveled through the jungle, hiked down a mountain, forded a river, and then hiked up another mountain to a little settlement of about 200 families who had been living there since who knows when.
With a single laptop charge, we conducted the final piece of a five-year study to identify the human emotions that are universal across cultures. We brought a long list of potential universal emotions—from shame to joy to embarrassment—to see if they could be recognized by people who had no experience with the outside world. That means no electricity, no internet, no cell phones, no printed media—nothing.
Incredibly, when we showed the villagers dozens of facial and vocal expressions, they recognized the vast majority of the emotions with relatively high accuracy. But there was one emotion that didn’t behave like all the others. It was different.
The emotion was contentment, and while we were working on translating our study, our guide, Dr. Dorji Wangchuk, stopped for a moment when we reached this word. “In our culture, this emotion is very special. It is the highest achievement of human well-being, and it is what the greatest enlightened masters have been writing about for thousands for years.” Now that was a conversation starter, and I asked him for the translation. “It’s hard to translate it exactly, but the closest word is chokkshay, which is a very deep and spiritual word that means ‘the knowledge of enough.’ It basically means that right here, right now, everything is perfect as it is, regardless of what you are experiencing outside.”
This was the moment when lightning struck for me, and I immediately felt chills down my entire body. No matter where I went on planet earth, all of the cultures I interacted with revered contentment as one of the highest states to cultivate in life. Yet in the West, we were obsessing about happiness—and feeling more anxious, depressed, and stressed. I decided to dig in and see what kind of ancient secrets could be revealed through a scientific investigation of the most underappreciated emotion in history: contentment.
Contentment vs. happiness
To begin the investigation, after I was hired at Yale University, my new research team dove into over 5,000 years of human philosophy and 200 years of scientific research into the nature of the mind. When the dust settled, two different strategies emerged that humans have been using for thousands of years to find some form of well-being.
The first is the “More Strategy,” where people try to find more money, more power, more stuff, more validation, and more success from the world outside of them. If I offered you $1,000 right now, I’m sure you would be very happy. It’s OK to admit it—I would be happy, too. The only problem is the next question: How long does the happiness last from receiving that money? As soon as you put the money into your pocket, the happiness begins to diminish, and shortly you’ll find yourself needing another hit.
While there’s nothing wrong with temporary boosts in wellness, the problem with the More Strategy is that it’s simply not sustainable. The More Strategy costs a lot of time, energy, and resources to keep it up.
Browsing the infinite corridors of Amazon.com, you can find over 20,000 self-help books with the word “happiness” in the title. Each promises a brighter, more positive future through practices that invoke the world’s most popular emotion. There is something about happiness that has everyone captivated, but at the same time few actually seem to find it.
This is where the second strategy comes in, and it’s one that’s worth studying deeply.
The second is the “Enough Strategy,” where people direct their attention inward to find the happiness that’s already inside of them. While pouring through thousands of years of ancient wisdom traditions, my team and I were shocked to find that the ancients almost never used the word happiness when they were talking about what it means to be well. More than 90 percent of the time, they used the word contentment, and described it as a state of “unconditional wholeness,” regardless of what is happening externally.
The root of the word contentment comes from the Latin contentus, which means “held together” or “intact, whole.” Originally, contentus was used to describe containers, literally things like cups, buckets, and barrels. Later, the word evolved into something that could reflect onto a person, which describes one who feels complete, with no desires beyond themselves. Contentus asks the question, “How whole do you feel inside? How complete are you as a human being?”
This perspective shifts the entire narrative of humanity’s quest for something greater. All other emotions require external input; they are reactions to the outside world. Contentment, on the other hand, requires no external input and is sourced entirely from within. Instead of seeking external sources for happiness—which are always going to be out of our control—contentment offers an incredible power and stability.
In fact, we can feel contentment even when our external environment is completely nuts. Think of the unflinching calm of a Formula 1 driver taking a corner at 180 miles per hour, or the feeling of wholeness when the family is around the dinner table together, even if the kids are fighting again.
Contentment comes from our relationship to what is going on around us, rather than our reaction to it. It is the peaceful realization that we are whole and complete just as we are, despite the anger, sadness, joy, frustration, and excitement that may come in and out from time to time.
How to cultivate contentment
Instead of striving for temporary happiness, we can settle into a sustainable sense of contentment that nobody can take away from us, and nobody can give to us, either. It is already inside of us, and it just takes a little practice to begin experiencing it for ourselves.
There are many great practices that help you cultivate contentment, and they’re all surprisingly simple, they’re evidenced by hundreds of scientific studies, and they require no fancy equipment. These strategies are highly sustainable and can bring massive benefits for little cost—they usually just take a small bit of time during your day to find some peace and silence.
1. Practice mindfulness. The first one may not surprise you, because everyone from doctors to athletes to Oprah has endorsed it over the past few decades. Mindfulness is the cultivation of focused attention to the present moment, without judging your experiences as good or bad. It is one of the most well-studied practices for calming down the body and weathering the manic cyclone of the mind. There are literally thousands of websites, videos, and apps where you can learn how to practice mindfulness.
The added bonus that I will offer is for you to notice how you feel while practicing mindfulness, even for a short while. Does your body feel relaxed? Does your mind feel a bit more calm? Do you feel that everything is a little bit more OK than it was just a few minutes ago, for no apparent reason? Do you feel less needy, more resourced? That’s contentment coming online. Focus on this feeling, and cultivate it so that you can bring it into your life with greater and greater frequency.
2. Identify your well-being contingencies. A well-being contingency is an external factor that you believe is required for you to feel complete as a human being. Some common well-being contingencies include:
- When I have $X in my bank account, then I’ll be happy.
- When I achieve X at work, then I’ll finally feel good about my job.
- When X gives me the validation I’m looking for, then I’ll be satisfied.
- When I purchase X material item, then I’ll be doing well.
- When I’m X years old, then I can retire and finally enjoy life.
- When my kids achieve X, then I’ll know I was a successful parent.
While it’s OK to have goals, unhealthy attachments to well-being contingencies can be problematic, because they create dependencies that are out of your control. They also reinforce the idea that you can’t be OK right now and that self-love and acceptance need to wait until later.
If you’re a human being, you likely have a few of these contingencies running in the background programming of your subconscious mind. Take some time to reflect, and map them out. Keep the ones that you like, and deeply reflect on the ones that are holding you back from your ideal life. Ask yourself how you can begin to feel whole, complete, and unconditionally accepting of yourself right now instead of waiting years for these contingencies to be fulfilled—if they are ever fulfilled at all. This will empower you to take ownership of your personal well-being, instead of leaving it up to other people and factors that are largely out of your control.
3. Radically accept all emotions. This is a tough practice, and you’re probably not going to like it—at first. Imagine a world where every emotion that you experience comes and goes like a wave on the ocean, like a visitor that stays for awhile and gently leaves when it’s ready. There are very few guarantees in life, but one that I can offer with absolute certainty is that whatever you are feeling right now is going to change soon. By definition, emotions have a lifespan. They have triggers, they rise to their apex, and then they gently taper away before being replaced by a new emotion. This is part of what it means to be human.
This seems all well and good, but the problem arises when we begin to create unhealthy relationships with our emotions. There are some emotions that we like so much that we hold on to them with a white-knuckle deathgrip—emotions like happiness, joy, elation, serenity, and other really, really pleasant feelings. There are other emotions that we despise so much that we would prefer to never feel them again as long as we live—emotions like shame, sadness, despair, embarrassment, rage, and other really, really unpleasant feelings.
Which emotions do you want to always feel? Which would you prefer to never feel? It turns out that at the end of the day, all emotions are here to guide us and provide valuable information about the world around us. What if, instead of trying to cling to some emotions while pushing others away, you instead allowed all feelings to come and go, without needing to change them?
This radical appreciation of all of life’s experiences is a cornerstone to contentment, which is the idea that right here, right now, everything is OK as it is. Yes, that means we can be content with our sadness, content with our anger, content with our shame. We can be content with our elation, joy, and peace—and everything in between. Contentment is the underlying acceptance of what it means to be human, an unconditional love for all of life’s experiences, without the need for anything more than what is here right now. Once we learn how to bring this into our lives on a regular basis, we can finally begin to understand what the ancients meant by the knowledge of enough, the acceptance of the present moment, and true happiness.