What really brings contentment?

A successful, affluent, attractive woman with a picture-perfect family came to my office for a pastoral visit. Her name was Sarah.

A few minutes into the visit, Sarah began to cry her heart out. She told me that she had serious marital problems, major conflicts with her grown daughter, and overwhelming stress at work.

During the conversation I asked her, “What do you most want out of life?”

With tears rolling down her face, Sarah said, “I just want to be happy.” After she regained her composure, we sat in silence for a moment. I could sense a debate going on in her mind.

Finally, she decided to risk complete vulnerability. Sarah said: “I make a lot of money. I’m successful in my profession. And people tell me that I’m attractive. Yet I’m terribly unhappy. So I want to know: If money, success and beauty don’t make you happy, what does?”

Leading experts in the field have discovered that although it sounds counterintuitive, Sarah is absolutely correct. Money, success and beauty don’t make people happy.

Extensive studies have proven that external circumstances such as career success, income, net worth, health, popularity, beautiful homes, education levels, IQ and personal appearance account for only 10 percent of a person’s happiness.

The other 90 percent of happiness is fairly evenly split between two factors: genetics, which we cannot control, and attitudes and behaviors, which we can.

Since external factors have such a small impact on happiness (and many are beyond our control), and since we cannot change our genetics, if we want to increase our contentment level, then we need to focus on the factors we can influence.

Psychologists have discovered at least 10 factors under our control that lead to authentic happiness. What I find especially compelling is that all 10 of these traits are taught in the Bible.

I’m not suggesting that happiness is the ultimate goal of Christianity; it is not. But the quest for authentic contentment — which every heart longs for and every person seeks — leads us to significant Christian themes, including relationships, generosity, service, forgiveness, gratitude and faith.

The findings of happiness research (called “positive psychology”) not only agree with biblical teachings, but they also are confirmed by life experience. So when it comes to overall life contentment — science, experience and scripture all converge into complete agreement.

Here are 10 attitudes and behaviors that contribute to contentment. Contented people:
– know that external circumstances don’t determine happiness
– use trials as growth opportunities
– cultivate optimism
– focus on the present
– practice forgiveness
– practice generosity
– nurture relationships
– express gratitude
– care for their bodies
– care for their souls

Scripture, science and experience affirm that Sarah was right. Money, success, beauty and other external circumstances don’t make people happy and never will. Instead, contentment is an inside job. NFJ

By Martin Thielen

Martin Thielen is pastor of First United Methodist Church of Cookeville, Tenn., and the former editor of Proclaim magazine. He is the author of Searching for Happiness: How Generosity, Faith, and Other Spiritual Habits Can Lead to a Full Life (Westminster John Knox Press).