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Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Searching for Happiness" (Martin Thielen)

TITLE: Searching for Happiness: How Generosity, Faith, and Other Spiritual Habits Can Lead to a Full Life
AUTHOR: Martin Thielen
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, (192 pages).

The pursuit of happiness has been talked about, written about, and lived out in the lives of many people. In fact, it is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence through the words, "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Rather than focusing on the topic of happiness, it is important to note that author and pastor, Martin Thielen is more interested in the "searching" attitude more than the final product. he begins with a thought-provoking question by a Sarah he knew: "If money, success, and beauty don't make people happy, what does?" Thielen uses three primary sources for the material in this book:
  1. Theological and biblical principles from the Bible
  2. Scientific research from psychology
  3. Personal experience as a pastor and teacher
He relates happiness with contentment and comes up with nine attitudes and behaviours that are necessary in this search for contentment.
  1. Contented people use trials as growth opportunities.
  2. Contented people cultivate optimism.
  3. Contented people focus on the present.
  4. Contented people practice forgiveness.
  5. Contented people practice generosity.
  6. Contented people nurture relationships.
  7. Contented people express gratitude.
  8. Contented people care for their bodies.
  9. Contented people care for their souls.
Using the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, Thielen tells the story of a man lost in the woods, unable to find his way out. Despite his many attempts, he could not find the way out. He meets another traveler who was also lost. Together, they work out a plan to share with each other what are the wrong paths to avoid. The book of Ecclesiastes is like that other traveler who shows us the four paths that will lead to "unnecessary pain and wasted time." The path of philosophy; pleasure; possessions; and productions will all lead one to a dead end of discontent. One by one, each of the nine attitudes toward contentment is described and expounded with personal encounters, quips, illustrations, and inspiring stories. He gives practical steps to use trials as growth opportunities by picking the fruit and burning the rest, another way of focusing on the positives. Thielen openly admits that not all of the nine traits have major biblical support, but are nonetheless useful in establishing paths toward contentment. The part about optimism is such a chapter. Focusing on the present is important especially in a culture where people often plan for the future, and in the process forget to appreciate the present and simple things of life. A significant part of happiness is in terms of mending our relationships. If forgiveness is hard, the costs of unforgiveness are even higher. The Middle East crisis is a classic example of the depth of unforgiveness among warring parties. Instead of willingness to work toward peaceful resolution, there are plenty of bitterness and distrust. I like the REACH method for forgiveness: R (for Recall); E (Empathize); A (Altruistic); C (Commit); H (Hold).

Other attributes of a contented person is one who is generous. Scientifically, healthy brain waves are generated when a person gives to make others happy. Those who care for others fare much better emotionally than those who are self-seeking. They also nurture relationships by recognizing the many different roles they play in the society they live in. Thielen also notes the pervasiveness of individualism in our society that ends up making people lonely and unhappy. After all, who would like to make friends with selfish people? Then, there is the attribute of gratitude for one's life. In understanding what gratitude is, readers learn about the opposite of gratitude: envy and resentment. The object is to be grateful regardless of what was done to us. The last two attributes deal with self-care, not in the selfish aspect but in the nurturing of one's physical body and spiritual person. Sleep well, eat well, and exercise well. Spiritually, we are reminded about things of faith and the Word of God. Apart from scientific evidence that religious people are happier, the letter by Paul to the Philippians also show how powerful faith can be to the way people live on this earth. Thielen comes back to 12 spiritual disciplines that we can apply in our lives.

So What?

This book is extremely readable, with easy to follow chapters, each of which deal with a certain aspect of what true contentment entails. Thielen has managed to combine scientific research with biblical principles; personal experiences with pastoral sensitivity; and much wisdom and learning from different sources like books, movies, journals, and other scholarship material. There is even a study guide for readers to go the next step further and create space for group discussions. If this book can generate lively discussion for all, it would have worth every penny. The search for happiness continues to be a high topic of interest. Like it or not, we are all in the same boat, wanting to make something meaningful and enjoyable while on this world. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which we have been taught all kinds of things about how to be happy. There are the right ways and the wrong ways; the relevant and the inappropriate ways. The nine traits of contentment are all about attitudes and how a transformed inner being can make a difference in the way we live.

Not all the nine attributes are applicable at all times. Different circumstances will require us to exercise certain behaviours more. That is why learning these nine paradigm shifts is not enough. We need the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us. We may have the right methods but without the right timing, the appropriate manner, and the relevant contexts, we risk becoming insensitive in our relationships. Love needs to be the overarching principle of all. That said, this book certainly helps shed light into an otherwise dark, lonely and unhappy path for many. Perhaps, as we let the attributes of contentment shine brightly along our paths, we can see that we are not really alone. With the clarity of light, we begin to see that we are not the only people trying to make a difference in this world. The light of contentment reveals to us that if one person can be such an asset for God through the practice of contentment, how much more can many working together to make this world a better place for more? I would dare you to practice at least one of the principles each day, and watch how God touches lives. Both others and yours.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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