February 7, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
Last week we went to the dictionary – more precisely, to Google’s summary of all things dictionary-ish – to get a definition of contentment.
As a part of that definition, we got thirteen synonyms: satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, cheerfulness, ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, and tranquility. But as any eighth grader trying to impress her English teacher by a heavy-handed employment of Roget’s Thesaurus knows, synonyms are slippery things.
Some synonyms mean almost exactly the same thing, and are essentially interchangeable. Linguists call these “cognitive synonyms.” The others are “near synonyms.” They may be only synonyms within a certain context. They may have overlapping meanings. Or they may “feel” different.
The denotations and connotations of language give us the richness of poetry, of multivalent meaning.
They allow for metaphor, euphemism, puns. But when you are trying to explore a concept like contentment, synonyms can be, at least initially, frustrating. Because some of them undermine each other, if not cancel each other out, depending on where you stand.
The discussion of contentment on synonyms.net, the “world’s largest resource for synonyms and antonyms” makes an interesting distinction between gratification and satisfaction: “Gratification is the giving any mental or physical desire something that it craves; satisfaction is the giving such a desire all that it craves.”
But can lasting contentment be a product of having cravings and desires met? Has that been your experience? It certainly hasn’t been mine.
Fulfillment is defined by Google Search as “satisfaction or happiness as a result of fully developing one’s abilities or character” or “the achievement of something desired, promised, or predicted.” Here is the word, used in a sentence: “She did not believe that marriage was the key to happiness and fulfillment.”
In fact we seem to know a heck of a lot more about feeling unfulfilled – at work, or in our relationships – than we do about “fully developing one’s abilities or character.” What we mean by fulfillment, moreover, changes over our lifetime. I will come back to this later in the year.
The most frequently use synonym for contentment – at least in my library’s card catalog – is happiness, “the state of being happy.”
Happy, in turn, is “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” That is, when happy is not in its “lucky” iteration, denoting something fortunate or convenient. How helpful is that? Not much. Synonyms.net distinguishes happiness as “the positively agreeable experience that springs from the possession of good, the gratification or satisfaction of the desires or the relief from pain and evil.” Again, we are back to possessing, to having desires met, to having pain relieved.
That’s contentment? Really?
Then there is pleasure, that sybaritic word: “an arousing of the faculties to an intensely agreeable activity.” OK. Arousal means a lot of things to me, but it seldom means contentment. Afterglow, maybe. But again we are in the realm of gratification and satisfaction. Not that that isn’t a nice place to be.
Cheerfulness isn’t really a synonym of contentment at all.
It’s more like a concurrent condition. “When someone is content, they are generally also in good spirits, noticeably happy and optimistic.” And this tends to be contagious; a cheerful person can buoy someone else’s spirits, just as cheerful surroundings or cheerful music can brighten a mood.
Ease is the absence of difficulty or effort. I would love it to be true that this is a synonym for contentment because then I could effortlessly be content, easy peasy. But actually it is closer to being a synonym for relaxed, which is another one of those words that is defined by what it’s not: “freedom from anxiety or tension.”
With the exception of its use as a synonym for console, comfort too is a word related to the absence of pain, annoyance, or trouble. “Comfort may be almost wholly negative, being found in security or relief from that which pains or annoys; there is comfort by a warm fireside on a wintry night; the sympathy of a true friend affords comfort in sorrow.
Even peace is often defined by negatives: freedom from disturbance, the absence of war.
The “peace that passes all understanding” might be said to be a Christian synonym for contentment, but the well-known phrase from Philippeans also has an element of protective vigilance to it: Paul promises it will “guard your hearts and minds.” Police officers are said to help “keep the peace.” Most of the time when we talk about peace, we are talking about safety and security. Necessary conditions for contentment for most people, but not the same thing.
On the other hand, there’s equanimity – mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation – and its near synonyms, serenity – “the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled” and tranquility “the quality or state of being calm.” Equanimity seems the most like an active state to me, something you actually do. A person might be said to practice serenity as well. But tranquility feels more passive.
Well-being is defined as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” If that is what well-being means, then I could argue that’s not strictly a synonym for contentment either – although a state of contentment might produce well-being.
Most of these words feel like a fascinating set of distractions to me.
They are paths to explore that don’t really take me in the direction I was hoping to go. Synonyms or not, none seem to me to capture that essential quality of contentment: that it is not a an emotion at all, but a state of awareness and a skill to be practiced.
In other words, an art.