Years ago 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 of happiness research 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 like career success, income, net worth, health, popularity, beautiful homes, education levels, IQ, and personal appearance only account for 10% of a person's happiness. The other 90% 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 have influence over.
Psychologists have discovered at least ten factors which are under our control that lead to authentic happiness. What I find especially compelling is that all ten of these happiness traits are taught in the Bible. I'm not suggesting that happiness is the ultimate goal of Christianity because 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, they are also confirmed by life experience. So when it comes to overall life contentment -- science, experience, and scripture all converge into complete agreement. The following ten attitudes and behaviors make people content:
- Contented people know that external circumstances don't determine happiness.
- Contented people use trials as growth opportunities.
- Contented people cultivate optimism.
- Contented people focus on the present.
- Contented people practice forgiveness.
- Contented people practice generosity.
- Contented people nurture relationships.
- Contented people express gratitude.
- Contented people care for their bodies.
- Contented people care for their souls.
In the end, science, scripture and experience all affirm that Sarah was right. Money, success, beauty and other external circumstances don't make people happy and never will. Instead, happiness is an inside job.
Martin Thielen, author of Searching for Happiness, What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? and The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion, serves as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Cookeville, Tennessee.