Happiness, contentment, peace: you can have one without the other, two without the third, and, rarely, all three. When I was young I was greedy. I was anxious most of the time, but I knew that this anxiety was superficial, floating as it did on the profound joy of being a healthy young organism. That impersonal happiness was easily accessible by disregarding the sources of anxiety, such as facts, life and the worrywart inheritance of my people. I disregarded such things -- regarded quite gravely by psychiatry -- by accessing freedom. Simply by running away on a bus to another end of town where beer was cheap and strangers aplenty, I could find the rabbit hole leading to the ever-present sea of happiness. The finding of rabbit holes became my profession, a profession that, like that of poet, suits the young but becomes more and more difficult the older I get. The problem is that the layer of worry generated by life get thicker, the rabbit holes get deeper and harder to find -- some lead nowhere, others are exhausted by earlier forays. Happiness is still there, but it lies far below now and it is subject besides to the perfidy of doubt. Anxiety has cleverly learned to question the very existence of happiness in order to claim everything for itself.
With access to happiness restricted, one begins to seek contentment instead. Not bad if the finding of happiness was not so deeply entrenched. Contentment is a kind of simple gratitude, available through the wisdom of letting go of worry. For this, there are tricks and books that teach them. Contentment is fleeting, under constant attack by petty annoyances, sustainable only as long as the phone and the alarm clock are turned off. Peace is something altogether different, a kind of forgiving wisdom that tolerates everything with equanimity. Some old people become peaceful by default when their bodies and minds no longer throb with excess energy. They just have enough to stand still and see the agitation of words and people like a kind of (hopefully benign) spectacle.
An elder poet who still looks young at 75 asked me if I'd ever been happy, and then answered without waiting for me to reply: "I've been ecstatic and I've been miserable, but never happy. When I'm no longer able to experience ecstasy, I'll take this cyanide capsule." She showed me a silver pill box.
Peace and contentment weren't even in her vocabulary. Hers was the faith of the young. I have no idea how she managed to keep it without giving reality its increasingly insistent due. Through monstrous selfishness, perhaps. If you have a heart, you'll be grateful for occasional contentment, a modicum of peace, and a flash of ecstasy now and then.