Is Contentment a Blessing?

Contentment is obviously a good thing. In normal usage, our word 'contentment' is just another word for personal satisfaction, or even happiness. And surely we all want to be happy, to experience a sense of satisfaction. Contentment is a very pleasant state to be in. In fact, the last person you'd expect to complain about anything is a contented person. And when there's nothing to complain about, things are surely good.

But perhaps this isn't quite the whole truth. Our term 'contentment' can also be another word for apathy, for being in a rut, for a lackadaisical state of inertia where people have given up and settled for less than they should expect, or insist on, for an utterly passive posture of acceptance that isn't admirable at all.

So, then, is contentment a good thing or not?

Perhaps there are two kinds of contentment, and we need to understand the difference. This first came into clear focus for me over lunch, during a discussion with Mike Voss, President of MBK Real Estate in California. I had just spoken to the top executives in his company, and, during that presentation, had emphasized the importance of not allowing what is good to keep us from achieving our best. As we discussed this point, Mike helped me formulate the crucial distinction between disgruntled discontent and creative discontent. The former is one of the most destructive and demoralizing forces in any company or organization, while the latter is one of the most powerful forces for positive energy and growth.

Just what is the difference? One way to specify it is to say that disgruntled discontent is based in an attitude of resentful complaint, and is always seeking more, while creative discontent is based in an attitude of noble aspiration andvis always seeking what is better. Notice two things here. First, that more is a quantitative concept, whereas better is a qualitative one. Second, that one form of discontent is rooted in something very negative, whereas the other is grounded in something quite positive.

Those who display disgruntled discontent never have enough, or achieve enough, and consequently never experience any sort of real personal satisfaction. They can never be grateful for what they have gained or what they have accomplished. And they tend to broadcast their discontent in a way that demoralizes others and breeds both envy and further resentment.

By contrast, those who show creative discontent most typically do enjoy what they havevachieved and gained. Their discontent is not a matter of ingratitude or of an insatiable desire to acquire more. Rather, it is due to a deep sense that there are always ways to do things better, to improve things, to achieve higher levels of excellence. The creatively discontented pursue better ways of doing things not only for themselves, but for others as well. They set high standards and breed both cooperation and optimism.

Is contentment then a blessing or not? Yes, if it is a mindset of of gratitude and joy. No, if is that alternative inertial state that just stifles creativity and growth. Or perhaps there is a better way to put this. Perhaps the term 'contentment' ought to be reserved for that wholly positive state of mind, and the term 'complaisance' should be used instead for that negative, passive state that just holds people back. Contentment with what we have, in the positive sense, is compatible with hope for something even better in the future. Complaisance is, by contrast, almost a giving up of hope, along with aspiration, which go hand in hand.

So then, I conclude that, properly understood, contentment is a very good thing, a blessing we all can enjoy, each in our own way, without in the least allowing that enjoyment to rob us of motivation and hope for improving the future even more.

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