"Hoarders and Misers" / Gustav Dore
“Hoarders and Misers” / Gustav Dore

“Always be happy, never be content.” Etched in pavement just a few steps from my dorm, the inscription never fails to draw my attention. I’ve always read it as a testament to Princeton’s hard-driving academic ethos: a reminder to students to always keep striving, never to cease pushing themselves to achieve. Presumably, these words are meant to be motivational, and for many students I am sure they serve their purpose. Even so, every time I pass it I feel myself groan internally. Never be content? After slogging through a lengthy textbook reading, or completing a final paper, the last thing I feel I need is a reminder that there is more that could, and should, be done–that the satisfaction I feel at the moment is not only temporary, but also toxic.

In urging students to “never be content,” the quote seems to imply that contentment is a barrier to achievement—if we allow ourselves to be satisfied with what we have already accomplished, we will lose our drive to accomplish more. As I walk over these words at the end of the day, I often feel an urge to talk back, to look down at the sidewalk and recount my last all-night study session, or the number of hours I put into a term paper, as if this should justify my right to feel that what I’ve done is good enough.

Even as I want to condemn the quote for encouraging this constant pressure to achieve, I know my anger would be directed as much towards myself as to the inscription under my feet. I hate this quote in part because of how much I find myself compelled by it. Defined by the Random House dictionary as a state of “satisfaction” or “ease of mind,” contentment is probably not the emotional fuel behind most students’ marathon study sessions. After all, if we are already satisfied with our performance in a course, or our knowledge of a subject, why make an effort to learn more? It makes sense, then, that keeping contentment out of reach should have the opposite effect, compelling us to keep moving forward.

The notion that encouraging feelings of satisfaction among students will curb motivation is reflected to some extent in Princeton’s grading policies. Defenders of “grade deflation” have long proposed that students will push themselves harder if they are not easily able to obtain the grades that they want, and there is a part of me that believes this is true. Most of us are driven to work by some incentive, whether that is a grade, a credit, or a new base of knowledge. These incentives can act like promises of contentment—if I do well in a course, for example, I assume I’ll feel fulfilled. It is this assumption, this promise of satisfaction, that finds me bent over a textbook, or revising a paper until three in the morning. The fact that these goals often seem out of reach ensures I’ll keep doing so.

 There is a fine line, though, between motivation and frustration. Critics of “grade deflation” have noted that while for some students, a lower grade might serve as a “wake up call,” for others, doing poorly in a class despite consistent work will raise the question of why work at all. Like Princeton’s much-contested grading policy, the self-critical, never content mentality can prove as disheartening as it can motivational. If we keep our goals forever out of reach, never taking a moment to pause and let ourselves be at ease with what we have already accomplished, our constant striving can begin to feel futile.

This mindset can be especially damaging for students at risk for or coping with anxiety disorders and depression. The constant belief that one’s best is never “good enough” can be a source of substantial anxiety, especially if our efforts at improvement never seem to be of any avail. Additionally, the belief that we are always in need of improvement implies a belief in our current insufficiency. Consistently negating one’s strengths to dwell solely on weaknesses can trigger feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, particularly detrimental to students who have a predisposition for depression. Even for mentally healthy students, however, such feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem can prove not only troubling but also de-motivating. After all, how are we supposed to achieve if we do not believe we are capable of doing so, or that our achievements will be worthwhile?

Given the bleak emotional consequences that remaining “never be content” can have, the quote’s insistence that students should simultaneously “always be happy” might seem like an unusual order, if not an altogether impossible one. When I first saw this inscription, I was confused by the quote’s separation of two terms that I’ve always thought to be roughly synonymous. After some thought, however, I feel that the difference between the two is ultimately the difference between a general state of mind and a momentary affect. Contentment is an overall satisfaction with the state of one’s life and oneself. In contrast, happiness is a momentary emotion. We are made “happy” by engaging in a certain activity, or by being in the presence of a particular person.

The quote seems to propose that if we can maintain a constant level of happiness, finding pleasure in what we do, regardless of what we feel we have yet to accomplish, we need not be “contented” with what we have already done in order to feel good. Given how out of reach contentment, at least in an academic context, often feels in an environment as rigorous as Princeton’s, I find the idea that happiness can take the place of contentment to be extremely attractive. Yet I also wonder if the superficial pleasures that we derive from momentary activities can really substitute for a lack of real fulfillment. Spending a fun night out with friends might make me “happy,” but it will not resolve a persistent anxiety or a sense of deficiency brought about by the idea that true satisfaction must be avoided.

Moreover, contentment and progress are by no means incompatible. Many of the most driven students I know here are also the most self-assured, the most willing to admit that they “feel good” about their work, and I don’t believe this is an accident. While motivation requires a desire to make progress, it also requires that we have confidence in our ability to do so. For the same reason that constantly reminding oneself of one’s inadequacies can prove more destructive than motivating, we cannot make progress unless we can appreciate how far we have already come.

Contentment is not laziness. It is a positive state of mind, a sense of balance and peace that is essential for our sense of self and our overall wellbeing. Of course, we all have areas in which we could improve, and no matter how much we manage to accomplish—academically, professionally, or in other areas of our lives—we always will. Being content, however, does not necessarily mean overlooking our flaws, or even overlooking a need for self-improvement. Instead, I think that contentment entails a sense of wholeness, an ability to feel complete even while acknowledging shortcomings. The notion that contentment is an impediment to progress—that, feeling at peace with ourselves, we will simply become lethargic—is more than simply untrue. It has the potential to threaten not only our mental health, but also what it aims to encourage: our personal success.