If Money, Success, and Beauty Don’t Make You Happy,

What Does?

Science, Scripture, and experience all agree that

true happiness is an inside job.

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?”

My conversation with Sarah occurred over twenty years ago. Since then I’ve discovered important insights into what makes people content. I’m now ready to answer Sarah’s question with a strong degree of confidence.

For example, I’ve learned that although it sounds counterintuitive, Sarah is correct. Money, success, beauty, and other external circumstances don’t make people happy. Although that statement is a hard sell in America, it’s absolutely true. Authentic happiness is far more dependent on internal factors than external ones. In short, happiness is an inside job.

Several years ago, in preparation for my book Searching for Happiness, I did extensive research on what makes people happy. Not because happiness is the ultimate goal of Christianity. It does not rate up there with the prophet’s call for justice, the Great Commandment, or advancement of the kingdom of God.

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.

In recent decades, leading experts in the field of happiness research have learned that external circumstances like career success, income, net worth, health, popularity, fame, beautiful homes, education levels, IQ, and personal appearance only account for about 10 percent of a person’s happiness.

The other 90 percent of happiness is fairly evenly split between two major factors: genetics, which we cannot control, and attitudes and behaviors, which we can. Since external factors have such a small impact on happiness, 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.

In a nutshell, psychologists have discovered at least ten factors under our control that lead to authentic happiness. What I find especially compelling is that all ten of those happiness traits are taught in the Bible. They are also confirmed by experience. So, when it comes to overall life contentment, science, experience, and Scripture are in 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.

These intriguing discoveries of happiness research, called “positive psychology,” have certainly proven true in my own life. For example, as a young man in the insurance business, I attempted to find contentment by making a lot of money.

Later, when I became a minister, I tried to find contentment by being successful in my career. Although I made a good bit of money in business, and attainted some success in my career, neither resulted in true contentment.

I no longer expect sales reports or the size of my congregation to produce happiness. External circumstances like money and success don’t make people happy and never will. Instead, love of neighbor, serving others, building relationships, caring for our body, nurturing our soul, and constantly expressing gratitude are the building blocks of a contented life.

These days, the things that bring me joy include playing with my grandchildren, having lunch with a friend, spending a quiet evening with my wife, connecting with my clergy support group, reading an engaging book, serving others, keeping a gratitude journal, and practicing generosity with my time, money, and love.

At this stage in life, my misguided youthful ambitions concerning money and success have faded. Instead, I’ve learned that happiness truly is an inside job.

[Parts of this article come from Martin’s book Searching for Happiness: How Generosity, Faith, and Other Spiritual Habits Can Lead to a Full Life. Since this book is still in print with the publisher, Martin cannot provide it for free on this website. If you are interested in the book, it can be purchased from Amazon.com.]