“Aristotle and Confucius would surely be perplexed by the stresses and various threats to happiness we experience in our globalized, digitized culture.”– Susan A. David, Ilona Boniwell, and Amanda Conley Ayers, The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.
After 12 posts I close now with a synopsis of the psychological and clinical approaches to contentment we have discussed. We started with the humanistic views of Erich Fromm who picks up where Freud’s pessimism leave off – contentment comes down to a state of well-being derived from the meeting of authentic needs; specifically meaningful productivity, gratifying tasks, involvement in the world, self-respect, ethical behavior, avoidance of obsession on the means to happiness, and a capacity for relaxedness.
We further extracted from Frohm and the clinical experience of his contemporaries in psychoanalysis that we must eliminate psychological obstacles to contentment, particularly the subtle causes of anxiety. I suggested we rework their methodologies to undo our more mundane disquietude. The result was a list of steps that break the cycle of anxiety and facilitate contentment while enhancing our capacity to achieve our full humanity. Specific actions include: (1) uncovering the causes of one’s particular anxiety, (2) coming to accept some level of anxiety as universal and thus also a bond with the rest of humanity, (3) relaxation techniques, (4) refusing to dwell on the causes of anxiety, (5) adopting healthy alternatives such as accepting responsibility for one’s actions and evolving a feeling of the common weal, (6) finding new kinds of gratification, a kind of ‘New Beginning,’ and (7) transforming negative will in a positive direction, in effect as a “will-to-health’ and revitalized creativity.
Later psychology moves to more concrete cognitive/behavioral techniques that we can also consider to map a course to contentment. Insight, self-knowledge, and a sound understanding of reality underlie this mode to inner serenity. The recent field of positive psychology takes us a step further with its focus on subjective well-being mixed with a sprinkling of spiritual psychology. Edward Bourne consolidates all of this psychological groundwork into a handbook of self-guided techniques – breath control, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, etc. – that echo and amplify the great Eastern traditions. For those of us most refractory to contentment, modern pharmacology offers the option of therapy with SSRIs or SNRIs as adjuncts to psychological and philosophical avenues to contentment.
I suspect most experts in the field of psychology think success utilizing only a self-directed program to contentment is difficult, if not impossible, for persons living in our turbulent times. For them, the psychologist is the modern equivalent of the ancient master, although thankfully less paternalistic. If one’s meaning of life is incomplete mainly due to discontentment, the reader may wish to consider seeking the modern guide, a decision that is deeply personal and should not be disparaged by the more fortunate among us.