Let’s look now at two perspectives on contentment within positive psychology. First William Pavot and Ed Diener present subjective well-being as incorporating four independent variables – high positive affect, low negative affect, life satisfaction, and domain satisfaction. This last item, domain satisfaction, refers to the discreet realms of life such as marriage, work, health, and so forth. Contentment in this model then is global in scope and integrates the subjective weight of each characteristic and domain for a specific individual. Pavot and Diener point out this global assessment can be (1) bottom-up referring to the aggregation of experiences, the more labile derivation, or (2) top-down referring to personality or individual disposition that views life experiences in a positive light, and thus is the more stable consruct.
Pavot and Diener argue that evidence suggests that an interplay of bottom-up and top-down factors determines overall subjective well-being, and yet that for many people the degree of subjective well-being remains relatively stable over time. They explain this by noting life experiences and changes, whether negative or positive, quickly dissipate tending to bring the individual back to a stable “set point” ultimately related to one’s core personality. They also note a confounding variable; social comparisons, particularly to those in one’s immediate proximity. Whatever the determining factors, Pavot and Diener observe that subjective well-being tends to increase with age (more so than with increasing wealth), and with marriage, good social relationships, and religiosity.
A second perspective of contentment within positive psychology is offered by Jane Henry, who explores contentment as the quieting of the mind.5 She adapts thinking from the Eastern traditions in encouraging spiritual practices that result in low arousal states as a path to happiness, not the higher arousal states sought by Westerners. Spiritual psychologists advocate living ethically, stress interpersonal relationships, and seek inner equanimity. They encourage us to go within, root out failings and develop the capacity to attend to others kindly. Acceptance, detachment from desires, mindfulness, non-personal identification, desisting from criticizing oneself and others, and flow or contented absorption in the present are highlighted.
One tool Henry emphasizes is meditation. “Meditation teaches people to understand and calm the mind and see more clearly. It does this by training attention, balancing emotions and transforming consciousness. Four common approaches are concentrative meditation where one focuses on an object such as a mantra, the breath or the body, mindfulness where attention is open, and an attitude of attentiveness is encouraged to whatever is experienced, contemplation around a quality such as compassion and intuitive apprehension where the practitioner waits for an answer to emerge to a particular question.”6
Positive psychology’s development of subjective well-being and spiritual psychology appears to offer additional perspective and novel methods beyond psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy in the pursuit of contentment. Before we conclude, I would like to consider some self-directed techniques which I hope will complete a blueprint of contentment from the psychological vantage point.
4 David, Susan A. et. al., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-871462-0, pages 134-145.
5Ibid., pages 411-421.
6Ibid., pages 417 (my italics).