SEARCHING FOR HAPPINESS: How Generosity, Faith, and OtherSpiritual Habits Can Lead to a Full Life. By Martin Thielen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xi + 165 pages.
We all want to be happy. The question is, what does mean to be happy? Once we answer that question, how do we get there? Beyond that, what role might faith play in happiness? These are some of the questions that emerge in Martin Thielen’s latest book. Thielen has a few ideas about what it takes to be happy. These are questions that I as a pastor often wrestle with—both in my own life and in pastoral care (that would include preaching). This book is a pastoral one that has a hint of the self-help genre. When it comes to the secret of happiness, the author of this book believes that contentment is the key. The book offers us ten practices that Thielen believes can lead to happiness.
Martin Thielen is a former Southern Baptist pastor turned United Methodist. He has written several other books that address human questions and dilemmas, including What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? A Guide to What Matters Most as well as The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion: A Guide to Good Religion for Seekers, Skeptics, and Believers, both of which were published by Westminster John Knox Press. He writes with grace and humor, offering a readable/accessible look at life from a Christian perspective that brings scripture, experience, and science into conversation with each other. The book is written for a lay audience and includes a study guide at the end making it quite usable for group use.
In offering his vision of a pathway to happiness, Thielen brings his reading of the Bible (especially Ecclesiastes) into conversation with science (especially the field of positive psychology). He then couples these with his own personal experience, which are expressed through the many stories he tells in the book. Many of these experiences emerge out of his life as a pastor. Therefore, the book not only has a self-help feel, it also has the feel of a sermon.
The key to his message is the reminder that root of happiness is internal not external. That theme of internal over external is developed from the very beginning. In fact, the first practice is a reminder that "contented people know that external circumstances don't determine happiness." He suggests that scientific studies have shown that no correlation between life satisfaction (used here interchangeably with happiness) and wealth, fame, success, etc. He notes that the least satisfying ministry he ever had was when he served as pastor of a megachurch. He had reached the pinnacle of success and was miserable.
With this as the foundation, he lays out nine more practices that lead to contentment. These include using "trials as growth opportunities," cultivating optimism, focusing on the present, practicing forgiveness, generosity, nurturing relationships, expressing gratitude, taking care of one's body, and finally taking care of one's soul (that is, the life of faith). For each of these practices he offers a word about the message of scripture, along with the perspective of positive psychology, along with a strong dose of his own personal experience. It is the latter that allows the book to move along. He's a pretty good story teller.
There isn't anything here that is earthshattering new. Much of it is commonsense wisdom, but we can all use a bit of such wisdom in our lives. This is especially true in the current moment when people seem overly stressed and society at large continues to push external success and material goods on us as the key to happiness. The ads do make consumption look appealing, but is it little more than a sugar high? Thielen warns us against thinking that if we can just get a more expensive car, a better paying job, and look good then all will be well. It’s better to be content!
Being content isn’t the same thing as being complacent. It doesn’t mean settling for something less, but it does mean that that we're not driven by the moment! The key then to contentment, which is the key to happiness, is the life faith. He suggests we engage in spiritual practices like prayer and fasting and reading of scripture. These suggestions aren’t new, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. Practices by themselves, however, won’t bring happiness. That comes, Thielen believes, when we remember our Creator. Happiness comes when we’re in fellowship with the one in whom our lives find their grounding.
It’s a good read. It might even prove transformative. Rest in God the Creator and see what transpires. That seems to be the message. That doesn’t mean passivity. It simply means putting one’s trust in God.