The differences between being happy and being content have been on my mind a lot this past year. As a woman getting used to the new ups and downs of anxiety and depression, I’m always on the hunt for some kind of cure that doesn’t involve taking more pills (although that’s my personal choice; if you need pills, for the love of God TAKE THEM, PLEASE USE THEM TO GET BETTER).
That’s part of what drew me to the audiobook called “The Year of Living Danishly.” It describes a yearlong journey with a British expat as she tries to discover what makes the Danes so happy. It’s a fascinating, and sometimes bizarre, read, but I enjoyed it. Part of what I love about it is the dissection of culture. Every culture has a different way of doing things, so it’s fun to read about what makes them tick and see if it can help me.
“What Makes Me Happy?”
My pills make it possible to keep my head above the proverbial waters long enough to see how far out I am at sea. This, of course, means that they’re working, but I was mildly disappointed to learn that there was no miracle cure for this new state of life. I still have to do the heavy lifting of taking care of myself mentally and physically. Hence my new quest to figure out how other cultures live, in an effort to divine what might make me “happy.”
Happy or Content?
The thing is, though, that the more I read and pray about the whole thing the more I think that “happiness” is often mistaken for “contentment.” One of the themes of George MacDonald’s writing is the discomfort in our own skin that drives us to seek the glory of our maker. Ecclesiastes is full of existential angst, and fun little quotes like, “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Even this book about Danish happiness is full of, “Well, they’re all happy, but look at all the crazy crap they have to deal with! Soul crushing winters, Europe’s highest divorce rate, and even they haven’t gotten rid of the problem of sexism!”
And yet, despite the world being a grossly imperfect place, we all still find ways to be happy. How?
A Bleak Outlook Could Lead to Contentment?
Apparently, for the Danes, it’s the “Law of Jante,” a list of ten rules that show up in one way or another in Danish culture. They include little gems such as, “You’re not to think you are anything special,” “You’re not to think you know more than we do,” “You’re not to laugh at us,” and my favorite, “You’re not to think anyone cares about you.”
If this all sounds bleak as hell, you’re not wrong. It’s the same kind of bleakness that is all over the book of Ecclesiastes. Yet the key to these rules isn’t necessarily putting you in your place, but rather setting you up to be content with whatever your lot is in life. That, my friends, is Biblical. The verse Philippians 4:13, normally used to push myself through that last half mile of my run, is actually preceded by a whole paragraph where Paul discusses how he’s learned to be content.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Expanding on that idea, our favorite Mega Downer book of Ecclesiastes states that the key to happiness is being contented with the gifts of Lord, knowing that our actions amount to nil outside of His gifts and grace.
10 I saw the hard work God has given people to do. 11 God has given them a desire to know the future. He does everything just right and on time, but people can never completely understand what he is doing. 12 So I realize that the best thing for them is to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live. 13 God wants all people to eat and drink and be happy in their work, which are gifts from God. 14 I know that everything God does will continue forever. People cannot add anything to what God has done, and they cannot take anything away from it. God does it this way to make people respect him.
Don’t Get Happy, Get Content
So now I’m thinking that instead of trying to banish my depression with happiness, I should practice the art of contentment. Life will often be uncomfortable, and circumstances will never be perfect. But maybe the key to dealing with it is to find contentment in my circumstances, or at least not beating myself to an emotional pulp when I fail. Maybe, instead of fighting the discomfort or the hurt, I learn to accept it, roll through it, and be content that no matter what happens, it’s happening in the Lord’s control.
What do you guys think though? Am I blowing smoke here, or have you also found that contentment is the key to happiness? Let me know in the comments below, and while you’re there, tell me what are some of the ways you’ve learned to stay content? I’d love to hear about them!