Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why contentment usually does not lead to happiness

In the film World War Z, a family in New York is stranded in morning traffic when a mysterious disease breaks out, transforming the infected into zombies. The family, whose athletic patriarch is a former United Nations investigator, played by Brad Pitt, escape the roads that are now teeming with violent zombies, and run into a residential building where a migrant family give them refuge. I would have hid here for months until a vaccine is found, but the former UN investigator prepares to leave, and asks everyone to go with him. His experience of dangerous places has taught him “people who moved survived" and those who didn’t perished. “Movement is life."

It may not be obvious at first glance, but the 19th century American industrialist Andrew Carnegie said almost the same thing. And what is counter-intuitive from the mouth of Brad Pitt seems intuitive told by Carnegie.

Carnegie, in a magazine article, defended the vast inequality between rich industrialists and the rest as a natural result of prosperity. An industrialist who does not have suicidal tendencies has no option but to keep growing. To be content is to perish. There is no “middle ground which such men can occupy, because the great manufacturing or commercial concern which does not earn at least interest upon its capital soon becomes bankrupt. It must either go forward or fall behind: to stand still is impossible."

We are able to see why a corporation cannot be content; why it can only surge ahead or collapse. Yet, most people do not see how the same principle works in individuals too. In fact, we are taught that contentment is a big virtue, that it is a state of satisfaction attained with some success. After all our reasonable material needs are fulfilled, we are told, we must not hanker for more and more. Contentment is stillness, it is peace, it is equilibrium. It is a nicer word for falling behind.

If ambition is a capacity for unhappiness, contentment is the talent for happiness. Maybe because I am a South Indian, I have known many content types. I myself was one once, but then the zombies came for me.

I have known people who have escaped their circumstances through hard work and then grown content; the young from affluent families who decided not to work too hard or get trapped “in the rat race" and instead “do theatre"; people who got great lucky starts and breaks in their lives and encashed it for a peaceful life of not wanting more than a comfortable life. Most of them are bitter today. Contentment, it turns out, does not lead to happiness.

As with a company, if you are not moving forward, you are slipping backwards. There are non-esoteric reasons for this. Contentment is a middle ground. The very poor cannot possess it. It emerges from a material state that is not very low. As the content stay still, others around them prosper, reducing the value of the middle ground. This is what happened to a whole thin class of Mumbai’s refined rich. When I moved to the city in the mid-90s, they still ruled the place; they occupied prime real estate and influenced culture and dining. People on Malabar Hill spoke of jazz. But then new money overtook them and made being rich very expensive. Prosperity has inflationary properties. Thus the material middle ground of old money has been so devalued, it does not feel like middle ground anymore. A major voice in Mumbai’s activism today is just old content millionaires cursing new billionaires.

The defining quality of the content types is bitterness. Once, they were smug. They could be both content and successful at the same time. So they thought their happiness emerged from their contentment. In reality, it emerged from facile success. But then, as their peers progressed, their assets lost value, they lost prestige, they aged, they became obsolete and maintaining contentment itself became increasingly expensive.

Like many South Indians, I am naturally inclined to be content. I had very few opportunities to know this early in my life. But in my 30s, I went through a period when everything had fallen in place—I found some money, a home that I always wanted, appreciation, prospects, lots of prospects. I decayed in a state of mild happiness for five years. Then, I remember walking home one evening and I felt I was in the rot of a very good life. It was not bad at all; I am a fan of happiness. But it was also boring. Also, my encounters with content artists forewarned me that it is not a good way to be. That phoney aura about them of not wishing for more, and that bitterness in them at having been left behind, that was hell. So people like me who are afflicted with contentment but are wary of its effects, adopt the strategy of serial, episodic contentment. Use the unhappiness of ambition to achieve an end, wallow in contentment until it becomes the rot of a good life, and allow a new restlessness to set in, leap again towards another goal, and so on.

Even in fitness, the content are doomed. As the metabolic rate slows, what used to work doesn’t anymore and the body decays without the marvellous ambitions of the restless spirit.

There is something cruel about all this. That if you are still, you rot. If you do not have ambitions, you can be destroyed by a sudden phenomenon, like a pandemic. But then should the fear of destruction change our character? Isn’t there something beautiful in the fact that our finest artists, scientists and entrepreneurs adore smallness?

The problem is not in the scale of success or even the devaluation of the middle ground. Contentment is bliss, so long as the people who have it also have the humour to tolerate being overtaken by the restless.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Edit Profile
Get alerts on WhatsApp
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout