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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 May 2006, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
The undervalued component of happiness

Asleep on deckchairs
Finding peace at the seaside

A key factor that makes us happy has been highlighted in an opinion poll for BBC Two's The Happiness Formula.

It seems we value contentment very highly, but as psychologist Ilona Boniwell explains, it is something that many experts undervalue or ignore completely.

From all across the UK, 1001 people were asked by pollsters GfK NOP what happiness meant for them.

Unlike other surveys, people did not have to choose their answer from a list someone had already prepared.

Instead, they could describe what happiness meant to them in their own words, without relying on already preconceived categories.

And what the opinion poll revealed intriguingly was rather different from what many psychologists tell us about happiness.

Happiness in lay terms emerged in six different forms: relationships, contentment, security and money, health, transcendence and fulfilment.

The first one, relationships - sharing life with loved ones, such as partners, friends, family, children, grandchildren and even pets - was not exactly unexpected.

Research consistently finds that supportive social connections are fundamental to feeling good.

In our opinion poll, 73% of people mentioned relationships as the only or one of their definitions of happiness.

So there was a pretty good agreement here.

Missing factor

What was interesting, however, is that 56% of the respondents equated happiness with contentment.

Happiness questionnaire
Scientists can measure happiness with a series of questions

This is something psychology does not talk about much.

The magic happiness formula that positive psychologists use is: pleasure + engagement + meaning = happiness.

However, there is no space in this formula for contentment. Does it mean that we are missing something?

Let us have a look at what contentment means first.

According to dictionary, contentment is accepting things as they are. Another interpretation is mental or emotional satisfaction and foremost, a peace of mind.

But what does it mean to have a peace of mind? Is it about not worrying? Is it about not arguing? Is it about having everything you want or actually not wanting? Is it about clear conscience?

"For me, happiness is about personal tranquillity", "Happiness is going to sleep peacefully and waking up the next day", "Being at peace with the way things are going", "Happiness is when you are ok inside about where you are and who you are", "Taking the dog for a walk".

These are not quotations from a book, but what ordinary people think.

Inner peace

So for most of us, contentment is a mixture of these things, but what do they have in common?

Change what you can, accept what you cannot and have the wisdom to know the difference

What they have in common, it seems, is not fighting yourself.

You are content when the different parts of yourself make friends with each other.

Discontent, on the other hand, is the result of a discrepancy between what you want and what you get.

However, nobody can have everything they want.

A rich person may not have youth and a young person may not have money.

And even one who is both rich and young, may be not as carefree as a hermit.

So does it mean that we can not be content?

Fortunately not. The trick is that what really matters is what is going on the inside rather than the outside.

In other words, what we want depends on us, rather than the situation, so by changing our perspective we can affect our level of contentment as much, if not more, as we could do by changing the situation.

As a famous saying goes, change what you can, accept what you cannot and have the wisdom to know the difference.

Psychologist Ilona Boniwell is a contributor to The Happiness Formula which is broadcast on May 10th at 7pm on BBC Two.


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