The other day I was having a conversation with a Russian friend of mine and it came to the topic of happiness. I learned two things. First, never argue with a Russian as they will never lose and even if they do will not allow you any triumph. Second, that there is much confusion for many between the notions of happiness and contentment (ok, I already knew the second part). The first part was, perhaps, humbling for myself.
There is a general sentiment at large that happiness is whatever I deem to call it or mean by the term. Even well meaning persons fall into this ‘happiness relativism’. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that happiness seems intrinsically tied to our persons, and as such we have the tendency to be rather defensive whenever someone might disagree with what ‘makes us happy’. Unfortunately this is all too indicative of a common error: mistaking happiness with emotional euphoria. In that sense, I am happy whenever I get my kicks, so to speak. The poverty of this view is so deep that it is almost difficult to point out. How could happiness be something passive, something that happens to me from time to time and place to place. Euphoria I can understand as fitting that bill, or bouts of emotional highs and delighting in something or some aspect would be more fitting. Happiness, however, is so tied to our personhood that to say that it is passive and passing is to commit injustice against it and ourselves (and it is possible to commit injustice against oneself).
Suffice to say that I concluded that the person in question, and indeed all such persons, are not truly ‘happy whenever x‘ takes place (e.g. enjoying a night at the opera with friends, providing that it is not a Gershwin production, or a fine glass of wine with salmon). Rather, such persons are more accurately described as being content. Moments and happenings do not suffice for happiness since such is lasting, not easily attained, achieved over a lifetime (and then some) and not able to be taken away. Contentment, on the other hand, is entirely circumstantial, momentous, and descriptive of day by day and moment by moment phenomena. Thus, if I am at a nice dinner and the person sitting across from me asks how I feel and what am I thinking I should not say ‘I’m happy’ but rather ‘I’m content’.
If we think about it, what more could there be? If all is well in the world, the dinner is excellent, the wine superb, the conversation agreeable, the prospectus of the evening is well, etc, then one is not happy but rather content. Happiness is descriptive of a life as a whole; it is a moral judgment on a person. Contentment is not; and the pleasure seekers, the euphoria takers, the general public is mistaken. Is this really such shocking and novel news? Of course you might ask why this matters at all, why not simply let people label things as they will and call it whatever they like; we know what they mean. Sadly, this is not true. I know what they mean but I doubt that they themselves do. These distinctions are important not simply because language use is becoming dreadfully carefree but also because a person’s life hangs in the balance. After all, do we not live according to our concepts? How could we live otherwise than we think we know? We cannot. Hence, correct assumptions, concepts, predications, definitions, and ultimately morality and faith, all of these hinge on these distinctions and to lay them aside as so much nuisances is to lay aside all possibility of living.