Happiness vs contentment? A case for a sociology of the good life
Despite the enormous growth in happiness research in recent decades, there remains a lack of consistency in the use of the terms happiness, satisfaction, contentment and well-being. In this article I argue for a sociologically grounded distinction between happiness and contentment that defines the former as positive affect and the latter as positive reflection. Contentment is therefore understood as a fulfilling relationship with the self and society (to borrow from G.H. Mead's terminology) and happiness involves pleasurable experiences. There is a history of similar distinctions in philosophy and psychoanalysis, but much of the contemporary discourse fails to distinguish between individual and collective definitions of happiness. This article will argue that happiness and contentment ought not to be treated as competing approaches to the good life, but as complimentary forms of emotional experience. Further, I argue that the current interest in happiness can be linked to larger culture shifts involving neoliberalism and individualism.
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