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Searching for Contentment

23

January 31, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

These days you don’t need a dictionary to get a definition for contentment. You just need a search engine.

A box will come up when you use Google search, telling you the basics – that contentment is “a state of happiness and satisfaction.” You don’t even have to click through to Webster or dictionary.com. You will learn that the synonyms for contentment are contentedness, content (don’t these seem like cheating to you?), satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, and cheerfulness.

If you click “more,” you’ll get a few additional synonyms – ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, tranquility. But if you dig into the denotations and connotations of these synonyms (as we will next month), you will find thing are not so simple as the little box makes them appear. Even two examples of using contentment in a sentence are fraught with potential conflict.

He found contentment in living a simple life in the country.

You know...like this.

You know…like this. (Illustration by John Ganham found on A Simple Life)

Finally being alone brought her a contentment she’d never known.

Courtesy The British Library, via Flickr Commons

One wonders if he and she ever cross paths in their respective contentments.

We even get etymology and translation in this neat little box.

The word comes from late Middle English (denoting the payment of a claim): from French contentement, and from the Latin contentus. The derivation of contentious, on the other hand, is also from late Middle English, by a different route: from Old French contentieux, from Latin contentiosus, from content-‘striven,’ from the verb contendere. How odd, that two words which look so similar could mean such completely opposite things.

You can then translate contentment into one of more than 50 languages, from Afrikaans (tevredenheid) to Yiddish (צופרידנקייַט). There are some issues here, too – try getting that little box to translate contentment into Armenian, Hmong, or Zulu, for example – but that’s for another post.

At the bottom of the module is a depiction of the Google Ngram, which provides a graphic of the use of the word contentment in books in English from 1800 to 2008.

The word apparently peaked in the early 1840’s, with works like Simeon Ashe’s A Treatise on Divine Contentment (1840); The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by the Reverend Jeremiah Burroughs, a book of sermons reprinted in 1840, but originally published in 1655; and The Art of Contentment (1841) by Richard Allestree and Lady Dorothy Coventry. I had no idea my last blog post had copped its subtitle from a work of Christian piety.

In the 1840s, contentment was apparently much on the minds of devout Christians. There are a series of tracks published by Sunday Schools, including How to be Happy, Though Poor, Or, Christian Contentment, from ‘Advice to Cottagers,’ published in 1843; and Contentment and Discontent, from the Religious Tract Society of Great Britain. From the states you find The Aged Pequot, or Gratitude and Contentment, a four page pamphlet published by the Sunday School Union of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Given the decimation of the Pequot Indians by epidemic and war in the 17th century, that’s going to take some unpacking later on as well.

Contentment Ngram

Although the graph has a few ups and down from the 1840’s on, the general trajectory of the term in published works is downward from there.

There’s been something of an uptick since 2000, more so in books published in the United States than in Britain. This is something you can see for yourself by searching for books in American versus British English. Perhaps it’s because we’re more into the self-help stuff on this side of the pond.

However, when the books that make up the curve are checked, at the top are the same books for both countries – Neil Clark Warren’s Finding Contentment (2005), Lydia Brownback’s Contentment: A Godly Woman’s Adornment (2008), and Richard H. Palmquist’s Einstein, Money and Contentment (2005). The last one is going on my list for the sake of the title alone.

The other book that shows up on the first page of the ngram results for the years 2000+ is yet another reprint of Jeremiah Burroughs’ sermons. Traditional piety apparently never goes out of style. Nor would Lydia Brownback’s title have been out-of-place during the peak usage of the word “contentment.”

I am not at all hopeful that angels are going to descend down a ladder with the rest of this year’s blog.

Screenshot 2016-01-17 15.02.06

From the Frontispiece of The Art of Contentment, available at Archive.org, above.

Nevertheless, I intend to persist. Perhaps out of sheer cussedness.  Which may do more to explain the relationship between contentment and contentiousness than etymology ever can.

How do you define contentment? What are you searching for in the word? 

23 thoughts on “Searching for Contentment

  1. Janet Givens says:

    Well, if I didn’t believe in Karma before, I surely must now. This blog post just showed up in my InBox. I have no memory of subscribing, your name is a mystery, but I was intrigued AND I had some time. I’m now hooked. More to your point, I am content. Contentment is not something I strive for; serenity is. And contentment is a lovely byproduct of serenity. Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jan says:

    Many words change meaning over the centuries but contentment and contentious seem like they should have completely different origins! I think you can only be content if you are communing with nature. At least, that’s the case for me.

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  3. bikerchick57 says:

    Persist out of sheer cussedness? I like that! Something to remember when I want to quit at anything.

    Contentment is having a plethora of other human beings who provide laughter, support, stimulation and share their life (and occasionally a glass of wine/beer) with you.

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  4. Anita Stout says:

    Contentment is those dull moments when I’m in between things to complain about. :0 WELL researched post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I found it interesting that the “how to’s” of finding happiness and contentment in our lives have been written about for centuries. Fascinating research. I look forward to reading your next edition!

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  6. Contentment would be the ability to accept whatever life throws at me with equilibrium and not stress anmd fight and argue with it. As I do.

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    • I assume, based on other things you’ve written, that “as I do” refers to the stressing and fighting and arguing. As I do too. Mucho muchissimo. Equilibrium sounds like a drug they haven’t prescribed me yet. ;-)

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  7. T.O. Weller says:

    Great research! I feel a little less lonely in my enjoyment of etymology. :-)

    Contentment is a funny thing … I’ve often heard it said, “I’m not really happy, but I’m content”, and I’ve wondered if that means being content is a sort of door prize. I’d like to think that it isn’t, that maybe it’s the peaceful side of happiness.

    In two sides to happiness, you could have joy: the energetic, more frenetic side that we see at things like weddings and other celebrations. And then there’s contentment: the peace and stillness of feeling completely fulfilled; perhaps in solitude, or not.

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  8. Annecdotist says:

    Is the whole notion of contentment contentious? Most interesting project, Paula. I do think there’s a difference between happiness and contentment: the latter, as others have indicated, is somehow gentler and quieter and more rounded, accepting of the mixed bag of that life can throw at us.

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  9. Terry Tyler says:

    Contentment is wanting what you’ve got, and realising that the present is the good old days of the future.

    I am currently laid up with a gammy leg, my husband and I do not have much money, we live in a town far from the idyllic rural beauty I crave, but it struck me last night that in the future I might look back at these times and think how happy I was, so try to acknowledge that every day. :)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh no! A gammy leg! But I get what you’re saying. Fortunately you don’t read books with your legs. Or write them.

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      • Terry Tyler says:

        Precisely! I am doing what I can to help out my overloaded book blogger friends, and a history award panel I am on – oh yes, and finish my new book…!

        Liked by 1 person

    • elainemansfield says:

      When things weren’t going my way, my husband hugged me and said, “It doesn’t get any better than this, E.” He said it before he got cancer and after he got cancer. I hear his voice saying it in my head still, and it’s still true.

      Stop hurting soon. I know what I need to do to and it’s free. More moving and more gentle stretching. I can do it at home. It actually feels good if I don’t force anything. I just convinced myself, at least for the next 10 minutes.

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  10. elainemansfield says:

    This is fun, Paula. It’s going somewhere interesting even if you (we) don’t know where. I love the origin of the word, “payment of a claim.” So it’s contentment I feel because I persisted with with my mother-in-law until she stopped being angry and bitter and I stopped being defensive and resentful. Contentiousness and contentment finding balance on the teeter-totter. Stamp that karma PAID.

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    • I am glad that it is fun, Elaine. And I am glad you can laugh about “Stamp that karma PAID.” Because I know the level of ongoing frustration such relationships involve, and it takes a great deal to be persistent. Personally I am wondering if I will ever stop being defensive and resentful about things like that. I am hoping it is acceptable to begin with trying not to express those emotions in a way that causes unnecessary harm to others and myself,trying not to react without pausing, and trying to let such feelings move through and out of me without becoming me.

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  11. […] Last week we went to the dictionary – more precisely, to Google’s summary of all things dictionary-ish – to get a definition of contentment. […]

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