Students reflect on the meaning of contentment and how it is different from the meaning of complacency.


Students will be able to:

  1. understand that contentment is a sense of acceptance of the self, the present moment, and of life
  2. understand that complacency, apathy, laziness, and boredom are not contentment
  3. articulate the difference between contentment and complacency
  4. learn through the story of a historical figure that we can feel contentment about ourselves and of life while still be action- and change-oriented


Dictionary and internet, computers for research (or historical figure bios)



Time Activity Notes
2 mins

Begin class with a short journal prompt to activate students’ prior knowledge of contentment (possibly referring back to lessons 1 and 2) or a short mindfulness exercise.

You can use this quote in the opening or another appropriate point of the lesson, as it is extremely applicable:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

10 mins

Share with students the meaning, history, and etymology of the word contentment. Have students engage with the word so that they have a deep understanding of its definition beyond just “happiness”.

Contentment: A state of happiness and satisfaction: he found contentment in living a simple life in the country; synonyms: contentedness, content, satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, cheerfulness; ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, tranquility.

Etymology: Contentment originates from the Latin contentus meaning “contained, satisfied” and has evolved through “contained,” “restrained,” to “satisfied,” as the contented person’s desires are bound by what he or she already has. (Source: Online Etymology Dictionary)

Depending on the needs of your students, you can ask them to practice with the word contentment in various ways to fully understand it.


  • Draw a picture illustrating contentment
  • What is an example of a situation that shows happiness but not contentment? [example answer: the day you graduate from high school, because you feel happy and accomplished, but you have so much to do and still accomplish that you aren’t content]
  • Where are you more likely to be content: a spa or a baseball game?
  • Where or when do you feel contentment in your own life?
5 mins
Contentment vs. Complacency

Depending on your students, ask them to untangle the meaning of contentment and complacency through one of the following means (listed from most to least challenging/rigorous):

  1. Look up complacency online, from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or the Online Etymology Dictionary. How do the words “contentment” and “complacency” differ? Work with a partner to answer the question.
  2. Provide students with the definition, synonyms, and etymology of complacency. Ask them to compare and contrast complacency and contentment.
  3. Explain the difference between contentment and complacency and show students a series of pictures, asking them to identify and explain why each one is either contentment or complacency.
Guiding questions to help students articulate the difference between the words:

  • When can you be both content and complacent?
  • Give an example of a time when someone can be complacent but not content. Alternatively, give an example of a time when someone is content but not complacent.
  • Would you rather be content or complacent?
  • In each of the following situations, explain if contentment or complacency is the best word to use:
    • Winning a race
    • Failing a test
    • Sitting in a newly-cleaned room
    • Oversleeping
10-15 mins

Share with students a list of historical figures who clearly demonstrated a sense of contentment but not complacency. Have students do a short burst of research to explain why one of these figures is a good example of contentment without complacency, using examples from their life.


  • Victor Frankl
  • Martin Luther King, Jr
  • Gandhi
  • Ella Baker
  • Anne Frank
  • Jesse Owens
Differentiation: Provide students with a short explanation of one or more of the historical figures with a list of their actions that demonstrate contentment but not complacency. Ensure that the content is accessible for students based on their level of skill/reading ability/other needs.
10 mins

Lead students in a discussion of how these historical figures demonstrated contentment without complacency, encouraging students to:

  • share out their discoveries
  • make connections to their own experiences
  • and articulate their own commitment to find contentment and avoid complacency

Suggestions for discussion key points:

  • a person can feel contentment about life through a sense of higher purpose while still acting to make the world a better place.
  • motivators like passion, curiosity, interest, “feeling a calling”, etc. lead to a sense of contentment but also allow for action
  • a sense of passion, curiosity, interest, or calling in life can cultivate a more foundational sense of contentment
8 mins

Ask students to answer the reflection question prompt in the “formative assessment” below.

Criteria for Success/Formative Assessment

Students will be able to define contentment and complacency correctly and be able to articulate the differences between the two concepts

Students will be able to identify the values and actions in the lives of historical figures that demonstrate contentment without complacency

Formative Assessment Prompt

Ask students to write a journal entry or short written response to the following prompt. This should be an extended writing task (8-10 mins).

How can one find contentment while avoiding complacency? Give examples from our research and discussion today.