Public Square

Happiness Is Not the Goal: Contentment Is

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The United Nations recently published its annual report on happiness, which measures income, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on in times of trouble, generosity, freedom, and trust (determined by the absence of corruption in business and government).

This year, my homeland of Norway climbed from fourth place to stand atop the podium as the happiest country in the world.

Can it be true that Norwegians are the happiest citizens in the world? And what determines a good life?

I’m skeptical. Here’s why…

Happiness Driven by What We Have?

The report analyzes happiness within nations using data from individual life evaluations—roughly 1,000 per year in each of more than 150 countries. It specifically measures answers to the “Cantril ladder” question:

Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?

Apparently, Norwegians feel they possess adequate amounts of income, good health, trusted friends, and that they are able to be generous, and have leaders with integrity. But does that make them “happy”? I’ve met many miserable people who have an abundance of these things. I’ve also met many relatively poor people whose lives are full of adversity, but they seem to have a positive outlook on life.

Personally, I have been able to enjoy decent income, good health, trusted friends, an ability to be generous, and integrity among my leaders. However, at times in my life, I still felt something was missing. My emotions could go from being satisfied when things went well to being unsatisfied when things did not go as I wished. Even with all these material and relational gifts, I was not content.

What’s the problem?

It’s as simple as it is profound. The UN is missing a key question…

Happiness is determined by external factors. As a result, happiness is one of the shallowest, most fleeting, fleshy emotions a human can experience. For someone to be “happy” something has “to happen.”

  • When my investment portfolio increases, I feel happy
  • When my flight departs on time, I feel happy
  • When my favorite soccer team wins, I feel happy

But how do I feel when the opposite happens, as it invariably does? Fearful? Stressed? Insecure? Miserable?

Welcome to life’s emotional roller coaster, full of temporary happy “ups” and anxiety-producing “downs,” fear-inducing twists and terrifying turns. This is precisely where most people are living—because they’re fixated on striving to feel happy.

Contentment is Not Dependent on Happiness

So, what is the secret to a “happy” life that isn’t dependent on circumstances? It’s contentment. Paul shares the secret in Philippians 4:11-12,

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. (NASB)

Paul learned to be content regardless of his circumstances. That’s quite an accomplishment. Take a moment and ask yourself, “Do I know anyone who always seems content?”

Paul found contentment through his relationship with Jesus. No matter what happened around him—imprisonment, threats to his life, poverty—he knew Jesus was with him. Paul trusted Jesus. This produced a deep joy, a contentment that not only flowed from the inside out, but swamped whatever negative external factors Paul faced.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

Like Paul, I’ve learned that abiding joy flows from my relationship with Jesus, where I listen to what he tells me to do and then I do it in obedience. No matter the circumstances, God can grant us joy.

I expect the UN will continue to measure happiness based on external factors. But a far more profound survey would ask not what you have, but “Who has you?” (Do you know true contentment because Jesus “has” you?)

My Norwegian countrymen may have a lot to be happy about. But happiness is over-rated. As for me, although I am still a work in progress, I choose the joy of contentment.

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