What’s The Difference Between Happiness and Contentment?

In 2022 I embarked on the contentment year. That year had one goal: discover what contentment looked like for me and go after it. There is only one appropriate word to describe that project and it’s lifechanging. But, before I got to all of the life changing I had a crisis of faith. Around June 2022, I began questioning the project. Was I really going after the right thing? Was contentment actually the right goal? What actually is the difference between happiness and contentment?

The narrative I grew up on was happiness and not contentment— that happiness was, or is, the ultimate goal in life. So, was the contentment project just a colossal waste of time and missing the mark? Or, was I right? Was I just on a different path? Or, was it the secret third option— that it’s all semantics, and now I’ve wasted the last two days worrying about nothing.

This distinction, as I’ve come to realize, isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a reflection of intentionality, a conscious choice that shapes the course of our lives.

If we’re steering our existence with purpose and intention, precision in our desires becomes paramount. Every nuance, every subtle shift in meaning, holds the power to redefine our journey. That’s precisely why I find this distinction between happiness and contentment so important. It’s not just about semantics; it’s about the essence of a life well-lived.

So, what’s the difference between happiness and contentment?


Let’s start with happiness. Happiness is an emotion and we feel happy when we experience pleasure. For me, this is eating a great pizza with my partner in the kitchen, or sipping my morning coffee (with my pumpkin spiced coffee creamer if it is seasonally appropriate). Happiness comes from external factors (things outside of you) and we experience happiness when we do something we see as desirable or pleasurable.

Happiness can happen on accident, or without intention. You didn’t know that the pesto pasta at that new restaurant would be that good.

Because happiness is an emotion it’s fleeting and it doesn’t last. This is what makes the pursuit of happiness so precarious. It can be a perpetual pursuit that leaves us unfulfilled. It’s a life where we’re always on the hunt for the next hit of happiness. Happiness has a high, which means there’s also a low. A low we want to avoid and prevent and thus we go searching for the next hit of happiness. It can become like a drug. And, like any drug, the more we use it, the higher our tolerance and threshold for experiencing it.

If we’re searching for happiness all the time our eyes are always out searching for the next hit instead of appreciating what we already have. And that, my friends, is not the life I aspire to live. It’s not that happiness is unwelcome; quite the opposite. Happiness does make life more enjoyable and it serves as a vital metric. When it comes to hobbies, your pleasure in them is an important part of figuring out if that hobby is worth pursing. Pleasure isn’t evil or something we should never have or attempt to strive for. It’s just not the only thing I want to strive for— time and place, you know?


Contentment on the other hand, isn’t an emotion but a state of being and it can be sustained for days, months, or even years. At its most basic, it’s a state of being satisfied. Not a “that’s good enough” satisfied, or a “that’ll do” satisfied. You’re pleased with something. So pleased in fact that you’re not hoping or wishing for that thing to be changed. It’s being satisfied with who you are, what you have, and where you are in life.

It’s about embracing yourself as you actually are. You recognize and know that you are enough exactly as you are. You are worthy exactly as you are. It’s a profound understanding that you are a complete, whole person, appreciating every facet of your being, shaped by the journey of life that brought you to this moment, both the highs and lows.

Wanting to change something comes out of a place of love for yourself and not hatred. And, wanting to change something, doesn’t mean you as a person are worthless or broken, either.

Wanting to remove my acne scars doesn’t make me ugly. But, if I don’t see or appreciate my beauty now, there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t see that even if my skin is smoother. I can be happy for a little while, but that’s all it I’ll be happy, which is temporary.

Hating yourself into changing yourself won’t lead to self-acceptance or happiness, let alone contentment.

Contentment is both a choice and a habit.

It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible to come to a place of true satisfaction and self-acceptance without intention. Contentment arises from our intrinsic values and intentions, rather than external triggers.

Is contentment settling?

The people who view contentment as settling are largely people who view the concept of contentment as “good enough” or “that’ll do.” But, critics of contentment do raise a good point, it can be really easily to slide from contentment to complacency.

When you look at all the facets of your life, there may be areas that aren’t ideal and sometimes sacrifices are necessary— that doesn’t mean you’re being complacent. Have you ever worked a job you don’t really like? This on it’s own isn’t settling.

This is where the happiness narrative can become toxic— when it suggests we never settle. EVER. period. I think it’s a good idea to keep in mind to try and not settle but sometimes it’s unavoidable and an inflexible or rigid rule.

Sometimes, what we need is a job to pay the bills— that’s the focus, that’s the urgency. So, you get a job that pays the bills. Are you doing what you love? no. Are you accepting less than what you deserve? yes. But, this is adulthood. This is reality and pragmatism.

The job becomes settling when you get the job, get comfortable, and then stop looking for the job you actually want. This is complacency. This is getting comfortable at your own expense.

Settling isn’t merely about accepting less; it’s when you surrender your dreams and ambitions.

Relationships are trickier though. I’m not of the nature to tell someone if they’re settling or what they should do about it, because quite frankly you didn’t ask me. For me though, settling in a relationship is largely out of the question. Our partners, just like ourselves are never perfect. There is give and take in a relationship and that’s normal. Compromise is normal— this is not settling.

Settling in a relationship is when we compromise our values, our identity, and our self-worth for the sake of staying put.

An Example

John Kim, The Angry Therapist, writes “We settle when we start compromising ourselves and our own needs.”

In sharing his own experience of settling Kim writes “I realized I wasn’t being treated the way I wanted to be but more importantly I allowed it (the action of setting), wondering what I could do to change myself so that she would treat me differently. I owned someone else’s ambivalence and insecurities. The relationship… didn’t match my definition of love. It was making me criticize myself and question my ability to create a safe space for someone else”

Kim’s experience captures settling in a beautiful and heartbreaking way. It’s when we start compromising ourselves, our needs, and our boundaries. It’s when we allow someone else’s ambivalence and insecurities to shape our lives, relinquishing our own agency in the process.


Critics of contentment argue that aiming for contentment alone can set the bar too low. They contend that contentment might inadvertently encourage habits, mindsets, or actions that keep us small. Are you content with running 5k when you could push for 10k? It’s a valid critique.

I am guilty of this. I have played small. I have set goals lower than I am capable of achieving, but that comes down to not believing in myself not a result of contentment, and that’s an entirely different discussion.

However, I also don’t believe that 100% of our time and energy need to be directed to colossal goals. Some people want to live their lives living and dreaming the biggest they can. This may be you, but there will be sacrifices. The people who dream big in their careers might not have the the free time, social time, or down time they want. They might not have a family or many friends.

The same can be said for people who are striving for a smaller or simpler life. Someone whose goals are family-oriented instead of career oriented. They might work a job they don’t really like so they can have the family situation they LOVE. Some people who never dream big will never get to have the experience of crushing a colossal milestone. And, that’s ok as long as it’s a choice.

You will make sacrifices. What matters is that you know which ones you’re ok making. Do you sacrifice the sleep or the run? It’s a simple example, but the same thing apples to our careers, our families, and our relationships. Are you sacrificing yourself for someone else? In that sacrifice are you giving up who you are? Or, are you compromising?


Knowing the difference between contentment and happiness, as well as their pitfalls, will help you to lead a more intentional life. You get to decide when you’re settling, where you find happiness, when that feels good, and where happiness doesn’t cut it.

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