Contentment: the underachieving version of happiness?


On Sunday, as I was enjoying my fifth Mother’s Day morning and my first complete with breakfast in bed (pancakes, coffee, newspaper and 5-minute interval cuddles) I realised something.

For the first time in years, I genuinely feel content. Heart-fillingly, not over-the-top-dancing-down-the-street-joyfully, but level-headedly, almost-constantly content.

Years ago I was reading someone’s thoughts on happiness versus contentment (and I’m sure those thoughts were Rhonda’s from Down to Earth, but I can’t find the exact post) when something she said pulled me up short. Paraphrasing:

I don’t aim for happiness. Instead I aim for quiet, constant contentment. Things don’t need to be great, but if things are good most of the time, I’m content. 

Initially I disagreed with this notion. Isn’t this idea of contentment just an underachieving version of happiness?  Surely, shouldn’t we be looking for the best experiences available and striving for the highest levels of happiness? The most fulfilling satisfaction? But as I’ve continued down this path towards a simpler, slower life I now understand exactly where she was coming from.

Happiness is obviously not a bad thing, but it’s impossible to be constantly happy. Everyone has down days, everyone has problems. Everyone gets sick, argues with their partner, is disappointed by someone, has a rough day at work or wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. To expect any different is, frankly, naive.

But creating a life of constant, quiet contentment means you are in a strong place from which to weather the storms of disappointment, setback and upset and you are better prepared to experience those joyful moments when they do arrive. I’ve come to realise that aiming for contentment is essential in living slowly and simply. 

For the first time since becoming a mum more than five years ago, I feel solid. I feel content. I feel like I am open to all that life has to offer, but no longer think I’m entitled to it. And honestly, it feels wonderful.

Last week I visited my psychiatrist for the first time in 18 months and, smiling, she said she could see a palpable difference in me. “You have confidence. You’re shining.” And, for once, I believed it.

Where has this contentment come from though? I started from a place of complete and utter despair. So what changes have I made in order to arrive at this place of (totally imperfect) contentment?


No surprises here. But decluttering, simplifying, streamlining and letting go of decades worth of stuff has left me free to pay attention to the more important areas of my life. Areas that, given a little more time and attention, have blossomed into the most vital parts of my world. For me that’s: kids, husband, health, writing, serving others.


Over time, simplifying life has lead me to understand my priorities and to actually live by them. Nothing feels better than laying in bed at night knowing I have put my energy into the things that matter most.


Accepting who I am, the phase of life I’m currently in, my weaknesses, my strengths and those of people around me, have all lead me to a much calmer headspace. I’m more compassionate towards others and myself, and that means I’m more relaxed in the face of troubles. Whatever it is, it will pass.

Finding the tiny joys

Taking time to look for the tiniest of beauties – dust motes, water droplets, kids laughter, smell of a campfire, warmth of a hug – has made me see how lucky I am.

Hard work

The feeling of satisfaction that comes from a long day in the garden, an intense early-morning writing session, or working through a problem with one of the kids is really hard to beat.

The deathbed test

“Will this matter to me when I am on my deathbed?” It has a certain knack of putting things in perspective, don’t you think? When I find myself getting worked up over a stained shirt, a burned dinner, a sharp retort or a late appointment I ask myself what I will think of it on my deathbed. Typically, the answer is that I won’t. 

Giving up on comparison

Contentment is so much easier to find when I stop looking at what others have and comparing it to myself. There is no way you can win when comparing your life to others, and doing so only gets in the way of your own contentment.

Helping others

Even though this blog is only a very small space on the internet, I’ve been fortunate enough to have it help other people. Every week I get emails from readers asking for help or thanking me for something they have read here. And I can’t tell you how much that act of helping others has actually helped me. Too often we get wrapped up in our own problems and our own difficulties. But extending our hand to help someone else in need forces us to think about them instead.  Realising I am not the centre of the universe has (ironically) helped me to find contentment. It’s not about me, and that’s OK.

What do you think? Is aiming for contentment enough? 


Other Things:

To all the mothers, mums, mamas, mother-in-laws and mother-to-be’s: I hope you had a fabulous day on Sunday.  (And to all the desperately-waiting-to-be-mums: I hope you got through Sunday with some warm hugs from those around you. It can be a difficult day.)

Also, I had the opportunity to chat with Elle Roberts of Seeking More Staying Grateful last week, where we discussed all manner of things related to living a better life. We spoke about contentment, how our homes affect the way we feel and the why comparisons steal our joy. Check it out below:



28 Responses to Contentment: the underachieving version of happiness?

  1. Brilliant Brooke! You’ve pretty much summed up how I live my life now (why does it take going to a place of complete despair to get us to contentment?!)

    I’ve never been a fan of ‘striving for happiness’ – because as you say, we just cannot be happy all the time, and if we’re not happy all the time we feel we’re failing.

    But we can be content all the time – even in the face of big life challenges. So while contentment is definitely seen by many as the underachieving sibling of happiness, I definitely think it is the better thing to strive for

  2. Love this post Brooke! I totally agree with you. I think I am actively seeking out joy and happiness because before I was doing that I was focused on the negative shit in life and the world around me. Now I find joy in the little things, and as I do that the beautiful, positive things tend to grow.

    But I think I am doing this more in the way you describe than in wanting to simply feel wonderful all the time.

    I am wonderfully satisfied with my life, but still want to work to improve it. And I genuinely believe contentment to be a much harder thing to really find then those fleeting moments of happiness so it seems like a totally worthwhile pursuit to me!

  3. Contentment beats happiness for me. There must inevitably be a return down the mountain of happiness whilst the lower slopes of contentment can skirt past too great an extreme either way. And I am content with my family. A lot.

  4. You have summed it up beautifully here Brooke. In order to experience the true highs of happiness, one must counter them with the depths of despair, but contentment is a constant and steady companion. I’m so glad to hear that you are ‘shining’. From your writing, it certainly seems an apt description!

  5. As with anything in life, there are a few steps on this list that I have no problem with – namely holding onto small joys and helping others. But then there are things I still struggle with, like giving up on comparison and acceptance of myself and others as they are.

    Just need to keep striving for better with each day.

    • Oh, Sarah, I totally hear you on this. I am doing really well with finding joy in small things, being kind/helping others, and I’m even getting better at accepting others as they are; but I still can make myself pretty miserable with the comparisons to others, not accepting myself, and a lot of coulda-woulda-shoulda. I guess we both need more practice in the fine are of letting go of expectations.

  6. Excellent post that I can relate to time and time again. When I return to work (currently on maternity leave) I am toying with the idea of dropping a days work, in favour of spending it at home. My other half is a home-maker and I find myself wondering what people would think of me if I didn’t work full-time. I am the provider after all.

    My aim is to simplify my working life and get a better work/life balance. But would I spend my time comparing myself to other mums or parents that both work full-time and what their families can do with the money. Better holidays, more luxuries…does that = happiness.

    I am content. Not overly happy or unhappy, but content. Some days I am slightly happier others less so but it all balances out to being content.

  7. I like that contentment is easier than happiness. I think it comes with time. After chasing things to get a happiness fix, I started appreciating the really basic and quieter things that happen much of the time.

  8. Lovely post!
    I’m not quite at the content phase but I’m working on it. I have found meditation has been amazing to open my eyes and see the little things that make life more beautiful. Some days I feel like I’m a fairy tale, gazing at butterflies and flowers, others, not so much. The simple act of listening to a guided meditation on you tube as I lie in bed at night and clearing out cupboards has made a huge difference on my path to finding peace.

  9. After I experienced major burn out from work and was hanging on by a thread in the last months of a hard pregnancy this was the exact thought going through my head…if I could only find contentment, I don’t need happiness, just a heart full of unshakable contentment. I haven’t gotten to the unshakable part yet, but certainly slowing down, decluttering and living more simply has brought a lot more contentment into my heart and life life. Plus it helps that the baby I was given by the universe is a super content, happy fellow. Thanks for sharing your journey with us and inspiring my own path to simplicity!

  10. I love this post! It can be so easy to get addicted to the highs and lows of life, and feeling discontent if we’re not experiencing deep emotions to what life brings. I used to wonder why I couldn’t “feel more” at Christmas or on other special occasions – as though feeling deeply was what I needed in order to fully enjoy something.

    But your post is beautiful, because you write about accepting what we’re feeling, and finding contentment in whatever that may happen to be. It reminds me of an article I once read about a theory that our emotions “balance” themselves – if we feel very happy one day, we will probably find ourselves feeling down or sad the next day. The body seeks balance. The article claimed that if we want to feel less unhappiness, our goal should be to keep our emotions more even – don’t go so high, and you won’t go so low.

    I think your post speaks to that – steady, even, realistic contentment could truly beat extreme happiness – and maybe cut back on the body’s need to balance out with disappointment and unhappiness.

    Something to think about! Thanks for this!

  11. Contentment allows you to see the rest of your life that has been waiting for you the whole time.

    It’s amazing how much clarity you gain.

    In March 2011, I had a bad illness. It woke me up, made me aware of the huge hole I was creating in my life with all the stuff I was accumulating.

    I got rid of 70% (or so) of my stuff in the months that followed, started exercising, took a different walk every day (amazing what you start seeing)… and lost 70 lbs over 12 months.

    Yes, contentment is enough. :)

    Great post Brooke.

  12. Yes, you are right that we cannot be happy always as to balance it, we have to be sad also (law of duality) , so to maintain balance we have to be in contentment

  13. […] I recently saw contentment called the underachiever version of happiness. If that’s true, I guess I’m an underachiever. For me, happiness takes to much energy to maintain over time. I don’t do happy on a regular basis. Sure, I have bursts of happiness, even of joy sometimes. But happiness as a long-term emotional state? Sorry, I just can’t spare the energy to keep it up. As Brooke McAlary says on her blog at Slow Your Home, […]

  14. […] I recently saw contentment called the underachiever version of happiness. If that’s true, I guess I’m an underachiever. For me, happiness takes to much energy to maintain over time. I don’t do happy on a regular basis. Sure, I have bursts of happiness, even of joy sometimes. But happiness as a long-term emotional state? Sorry, I just can’t spare the energy to keep it up. As Brooke McAlary says on her blog at Slow Your Home, […]

  15. […] I recently saw contentment called the underachiever version of happiness. If that’s true, I guess I’m an underachiever. For me, happiness takes to much energy to maintain over time. I don’t do happy on a regular basis. Sure, I have bursts of happiness, even of joy sometimes. But happiness as a long-term emotional state? Sorry, I just can’t spare the energy to keep it up. As Brooke McAlary says on her blog at Slow Your Home, […]

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