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Daniel Cordaro tells the story of when he and his research team were studying a remote group of former nomads high in the Himalayas of Eastern Bhutan. Along the way he came upon some insight on contentment (note: most of this article is found in the February 14, 2021 issue of “Kolbe Times“, and originally appeared in Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley).

Cordaro said he travelled to a place that no outsider had ever traveled to before, and were about to make first contact with “one of the three last uncontacted villages on planet earth”.

“With a single laptop charge, we conducted the final piece of a five-year study to identify the human emotions that are universal across cultures. We brought a long list of potential universal emotions—from shame to joy to embarrassment—to see if they could be recognized by people who had no experience with the outside world…

Incredibly, when we showed the villagers dozens of facial and vocal expressions, they recognized the vast majority of the emotions with relatively high accuracy. But there was one emotion that didn’t behave like all the others. It was different.

The emotion was contentment, and while we were working on translating our study, our guide, Dr. Dorji Wangchuk, stopped for a moment when we reached this word. “In our culture, this emotion is very special. It is the highest achievement of human well-being, and it is what the greatest enlightened masters have been writing about for thousands for years.” 

It’s hard to translate it exactly [the word from this remote village], but the closest word is chokkshay, which is a very deep and spiritual word that means ‘the knowledge of enough.’ It basically means that right here, right now, everything is perfect as it is, regardless of what you are experiencing outside.

While it might be said that the West obsesses on happiness – in particular – personal individualistic happiness, contentment is a state of another substance.

Contentment vs. Happiness

Cordaro said his “research team dove into over 5,000 years of human philosophy and 200 years of scientific research into the nature of the mind” afterwhich two different strategies emerged that humans have been using for thousands of years to find some form of well-being”:

The first is the “More Strategy,” where people try to find more money, more power, more stuff, more validation, and more success from the world outside of them…[but] the problem with the More Strategy is that it’s simply not sustainable. The More Strategy costs a lot of time, energy, and resources to keep it up.

The second is the “Enough Strategy,” where people direct their attention inward to find the happiness that’s already inside of them. While pouring through thousands of years of ancient wisdom traditions, my team and I were shocked to find that the ancients almost never used the word happiness when they were talking about what it means to be well. More than 90 percent of the time, they used the word contentment, and described it as a state of “unconditional wholeness,” regardless of what is happening externally.

The root of the word contentment comes from the Latin contentus, which means “held together” or “intact, whole.” Originally, contentus was used to describe containers, literally things like cups, buckets, and barrels. Later, the word evolved into something that could reflect onto a person, which describes one who feels complete, with no desires beyond themselvesContentus asks the question, “How whole do you feel inside? How complete are you as a human being?”

This article originally appeared in Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

An Ancient Insight

When someone asserts “I have learned the secret of being content,” it can be an audacious thing to say. But this is exactly what the Apostle Paul said some 2000 years ago:

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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Living through Christ is relational, not transactional. Contentment has virtually nothing to do with our circumstances but everything to do with our relationship with the One who made us for Himself. I can live in contentment when I live in the One who is the source of my sufficiency. I can be content when I can recognize, “You, Lord, are enough and my life is whole in You.”

How Content are You?

What strategy are you using to find some form of well-being?

What have you learned so far about contentment?