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Happiness. Contentment. Are they the Same Thing?

July 31, 2012, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by
Photo courtesy: pasotraspaso via Flickr

I was participating in a Ruhi book 1 study circle a few months ago, and as we got to the end of the book, we read the following quote:

O My servants! Sorrow not if, in these days and on this earthly plane, things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God, for days of blissful joy, of heavenly delight, are assuredly in store for you. Worlds, holy and spiritually glorious, will be unveiled to your eyes. You are destined by Him, in this world and hereafter, to partake of their benefits, to share in their joys, and to obtain a portion of their sustaining grace. To each and every one of them you will, no doubt, attain. -Gleanings from the writings of Baha’u’llah

I had read this quote before, but for some reason when I read it this time, it really resonated with me. I began thinking about the difference between happiness and contentment. Which one should I try and work towards? Am I ever going to be happy? How can I learn to be content in times of tests and difficulties?

The Oxford dictionary definition of happiness is “feeling or showing contentment”. The definition of happiness according to Wikipedia is “a state of mind or feeling such as contentment, satisfaction or joy”.  In both of these definitions, there’s a link between happiness and contentment, so they’re not mutually exclusive, but can one be content without necessarily feeling ‘happy’?

Sometimes our sense of unhappiness is borne from fear that we have a finite amount of time to attain happiness. Many of us try and plan out our lives with age milestones for example, and if we do not attain our goals in a given time-frame, then we can feel anxiety, discontent or unhappiness.

When the quotation above states “in these days and on this earthly plane” I realized that since there will be other days on other planes it would be an error to attach rigid time-frames during which we must attain our wishes or goals.

Next, the quotation refers to ‘things contrary to your wishes’. We know that happiness is subjective, and many people believe that happiness is a choice regardless of what situation we find ourselves in. Just because we have a particular wish, it does not mean that that wish is in our best interests or is God’s will for us. The fact is that things occur in our life that we may not be happy with, but perhaps these things have been ordained and manifested by God, so they are God’s will, and it is our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviour towards them, that determine our perception of that occurrence or life situation. This does not mean however, that we should ignore what we have been taught, or the lessons learned. If we make mistakes, and if the outcome is not what we had hoped for and it makes us unhappy, we should also be careful not to merely say “Oh well, it was God’s will” – we need to be active subjects of God’s will, and not merely passive recipients.

I then began to think about our pursuit of happiness. Should it even be something that we strive for? Is it just providing our ego with what it wishes? This then took me back to the concept of service. There are many quotes and writings that extol being of service to others, and the quote below is just one of many that inspire me when I think about how to spend my time and what I should be aspiring to.

The highest righteousness of all is for blessed souls to take hold of the hands of the helpless and deliver them out of their ignorance and abasement and poverty, and with pure motives, and only for the sake of God, to arise and energetically devote themselves to the service of the masses, forgetting their own worldly advantage and working only to serve the general good.

(Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization)

Thinking about service, we can all think of situations either in our jobs, or in our daily lives, where when we are of service to someone else, it makes us genuinely happy. Service to others takes us away from our ego driven daily thoughts, and during that time, we are not ruminating on our life circumstances, or our seemingly ‘unhappy’ situations.

This is a really broad topic and there is certainly a lot more to be said on the subject, but for now I will leave you with this quote, which is one of the many describing the Baha’i view of how we should aspire to happiness:

The happiness and greatness , the rank and station , the pleasure and peace, of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning and his ability to solve difficult problems.

The Divine Art of Living – Selections from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, The Bab, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
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When she isn't pretending to be Dr. Karl Kennedy (her hero) she enjoys chasing after the sun, cooking, eating and telling everyone she’s going to start being healthy by playing tennis. Roya loves to know what’s going on in all parts of the globe (to aid in her hobby of chasing the sun), so she's really excited to manage Baha'i Blog's Events Calendar.

Discussion 6 Comments

I think of happiness is that abiding joy within the quote, “I consented to be in chains that mankind be released from oppression; I accepted to be made a prisoner within this mighty stronghold so that the whole world could attain unto true liberty, and I have drained to the dregs the cup of sorrow so that the peoples of the earth may attain unto abiding joy and be filled with gladness.

I think happy is a core feeling, deep beyond the pain and horror of the days, the joy, and I find it is a solidity of feeling of knowing who Baha’u’llah is. That said, I can exist in a state of tension of the opposites, living in a world which is gnarly, or feeling the gnarliness of my soul, thinking, “Am I enough, and striving and struggling.” But still just the word “Baha’u’llah, and my soul is deeply solaced, even though to outward eye I may seem distressed. Love to all

Esther Bradley-DeTally

Esther Bradley-DeTally (August 8, 2012 at 12:22 AM)

Thanks very much Esther for your heartfelt and interesting perspective !


Roya (August 8, 2012 at 12:26 PM)

The last quote from Abdul-Baha, if anyone is interested in it’s authority, is found in Secret of Divine Civilization p 44.

Thank you for reminding us of the difference.


Ernie (August 8, 2012 at 6:55 PM)

Thanks very much Ernie !


Roya (August 8, 2012 at 6:18 AM)

This is very insightful. I hold a weekly devotional yoga class with a Baha’i friend and we provide our group a Baha’i quote on which to meditate at the end of the session. However, this time, with your permission, I would like to print out this entire page to share our friends and contacts.

Suzanne Hébert-Saindon

Suzanne Hébert-Saindon (March 3, 2014 at 4:21 PM)

Thanks Suzanne for your kind words and of course you can share the article !


Roya (June 6, 2014 at 6:04 AM)

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