When you think of what you want for your life, what comes to mind? Or, if you think of what you want for your children, what things do you desire?
I think that one of the most common things that people would say is that they want to be happy, or that they long for those that they love to be happy. Think about how often you hear someone say, “I just want them to be happy.” This is one of the most common refrains I hear in counseling when I’m setting goals with my clients. It is an especially common thing to hear when talking with parents about their children.
Happiness is this ideal that we strive for. We want it for ourselves and for those who we love, almost as if it is the goal of life. But, should it be?
There’s nothing wrong with happiness, but I don’t think that it should be the ultimate goal that we seek out, whether for ourselves or for our children. You see, happiness is so often a short-term experience. My happiness is based off me getting the things that I want, but those things aren’t always good for me or provide long-lasting happiness. For example, I feel happy after I have some Blue Bell ice cream, but it only lasts until the end of the container.
I’m sure you’ve seen someone who has gotten so focused on one particular thing that they want that their happiness seems to depend on it. Maybe it’s a relationship, a job, a car or getting into the right college. If we don’t get that thing, it doesn’t feel like we will ever be happy.
Even if we get the thing that we’ve been longing for, it still doesn’t bring long-lasting happiness. No matter what it is, it will inevitably leave us longing for more. Think for a second about what your heart keeps telling you will make you happy. No matter what it is, that thing will inevitably fail you. The perfect job will eventually have problems, the perfect house will at some point need repairs, the perfect family doesn’t exist, and the perfect vacation ends.
Instead of setting happiness as our goal, I think that we should instead strive for contentment. Contentment isn’t as sexy as happiness. It sounds bland, not as electric. But contentment is powerful because we can feel it in spite of our circumstances, while happiness is only a result of getting what we want.
When there’s something going wrong in our life, it’s hard to feel happy. You can, however, feel content despite life’s problems. It can be hard to be happy when your marriage is hard, when your parents or kids are causing problems, or when your life isn’t clicking on all cylinders. Happiness generally seems to require things falling in our favor.
Contentment, however, is reachable even when our marriage is struggling, our kids aren’t doing the things that we want for them, or life just isn’t working out the way that we want it to. When we seek contentment, we don’t allow the things in our lives to dictate to us how we feel. We recognize that there are things that aren’t working out the way that we want them to, but we also acknowledge that many of those things are out of our control. Contentment doesn’t always bring happiness, but it allows us to work through the difficult times in life. We can be experiencing extremely difficult circumstances, such as loss or relational problems, and still experience contentment.
Ultimately in my own life, I’ve found that the times I feel most content are when I recognize that no matter my circumstances, I can rest in the assurance of my salvation in Jesus. That helps me get through the hard times, even when it feels like the things that I long for might not happen. And what I’ve found is that that confidence brings a peace that surpasses even the happiest of times.
• Mischa McCray is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Send questions or topics you’d like him to discuss to email@example.com.