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This virtue is not on any of the lists of character qualities for character education in public schools. One will also not find it on lists of virtues compiled by positive psychology scholars. Yet, it is perhaps one of the most important missing virtues among North American college students today. For example, Christian Smith found that “between one-half to two-thirds of young, emerging adults (18-23) said that their well-being can be measured by what they own, that buying more things would make them happier.”1 Perhaps one has guessed, but I am talking about the virtue of contentment.

According to Google n-gram, the use of the word “contented” has been in continual decline since 1791, and “contentment” has been waning since 1925. Due to Christian writers, there are still recent books written about it,2 but the virtue has received surprisingly little attention from the wider scholarly world. It has been especially neglected in positive psychology. I found less than a dozen studies in this field examining contentment, and all of these were written within the last decade and associated with two key authors.3

Thus, it is not surprising that one of these studies, a 2021 proposal for how to measure contentment empirically, had to plow new ground by creating one of the first-ever measures of contentment.4 In this post, I will evaluate the definition behind the measure and the measurement itself by comparing it to the Christian understanding of contentment. I find that there is nothing more helpful in seeing the limits of common grace/natural law than examining positive psychological measures of various virtues and comparing them to a conception of the virtue defined by the Biblical tradition.

Measuring Contentment

To begin, it is interesting to see how the scholars define contentment. They describe it as “an emotion that arises from the perception of completeness in life.”5 Thus, although this definition acknowledges a cognitive aspect (“the perception of completeness in life”) as a trigger for the emotion, contentment is seen primarily as an emotion. The scholars do not mention how this habitual perception might be transformed into a habitual affection that then transforms one’s behavior—a habit that would be the essence of the virtue of contentment.

Thus, the scale they developed, the PEACE Scale, is not so much a measure of the virtue of contentment, but “a stable and reliable, one-factor measure of the emotion of contentment.” Below are fifteen items “that generally captured the construct of contentment” as they defined it.6

  • I am satisfied with everything that life has to offer each and every moment.
  • I feel contentment in my daily life.
  • I feel content with who I am.
  • I feel contentment and peace no matter what is going on in my external environment.
  • I often feel an unshakable sense of peace and contentment.
  • I feel a deep sense of contentment even during difficult situations in life.
  • Even though I may work throughout the day, I feel content with everything I do.
  • I feel content with my life regardless of whether others accept me or not.
  • Everything is exactly as it should be.
  • I am content with what I have.
  • I feel balanced in my relationships with others.
  • Overall, my relationships with others are easy to manage.
  • I do not desire anything more in my relationships with others.
  • I would be content with my life even if I lost all of my status, wealth, and achievements.
  • When I feel stressed, I stop what I am doing and take care of myself.7

Does this scale measure the Christian virtue of contentment? Not really.

We find the understanding of Christian contentment in a well-known passage from Philippians 4:11b–13 where Paul states:

for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

As more mature believers will often note for young believers who throw around the last verse, Paul is talking about leaning upon God’s strength to be content. We desperately need God to do it.

In contrast to the positive psychological definition of contentment offered in the PEACE Scale (“the perception of completeness in life”), Paul’s contentment does not stem from that perception. Paul notes that he perceives both completeness (well-fed and living in plenty) and incompleteness (hungry and in want) concerning his circumstances. Neither one contributes to contentment. Paul learns completeness by focusing upon the triune God and not on life’s broken circumstances and the current things he lacks or has.

In this view, Christian contentment does not stem from several things listed on the survey. All of the elements of the survey below measure one’s evaluation of external circumstances, particularly one’s relationships with others.

  • I am satisfied with everything that life has to offer each and every moment
  • Everything is exactly as it should be
  • I feel balanced in my relationships with others
  • Overall, my relationships with others are easy to manage
  • I do not desire anything more in my relationships with others
  • When I feel stressed, I stop what I am doing and take care of myself

Yet, these things would not describe Paul while he is in prison. Indeed, he expresses things and people with whom he is dissatisfied in the letter to the Philippians and certainly does not give the impression that “my relationships with others are easy to manage.”

Now, this study did find that there is a negative correlation between materialism and greed and their version of contentment. This link comes as a bit of a surprise because the survey items would appear to favor the need for material comfort for contentment. Yet, Christians should not be surprised because even a problematic conception of contentment likely shares the key features of true, biblical contentment.

In 1 Timothy and Hebrews, we find that contentment is a virtue that is especially needed concerning the lack of things. 1 Timothy 6:5b–10 contrasts those with contentment to those “who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

What is noteworthy is that the passage indicates contentment is fostered by seeing one’s life within the larger human story: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Hebrews 13:5 also gives even a more transcendent form of reasoning that helps us with contentment when the writer admonishes, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” An understanding of God’s presence, provision, and ultimate control of history also fosters Christian contentment with one’s lack of things.

Interestingly, only one of the above measures in the PEACE scale referred to wealth (“I would be content with my life even if I lost all of my status, wealth, and achievements”). It is this element that comes closest to measuring a key element of biblical contentment. Still, the Christian mentor hoping to develop contentment in students should ask, “Why would you be content in that case?” Any measure of Christian contentment would have to measure both of those matters.

The answer, biblically speaking, would best focus both on our entry and exit from this life and God’s ultimate provision and presence, much like Job’s response to losing all of his possessions and children did, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).

Indeed, Job’s model helped me with contentment when I was driving home from Houston after just graduating from Rice University. I had all my earthly possessions in the back of a truck that was filled to the brim with a host of new household items I had just acquired from my soon-to-be-married former roommate. It just so happened that a freak windstorm that blew over helicopters on the local army base came through at that time. It also blew all of my old and new possessions out of the truck and shattered them in pieces on the road. As I got out of the vehicle to gather what remnants I could, I found myself surprisingly content. I had just been reading Job and found myself silently repeating, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Footnotes

  1. Christian Smith with Kari M. Hojara, Hilary A. Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 71.
  2. Jay Y. Kim, Analog Christian: Cultivating Contentment, Resilience, and Wisdom in the Digital Age. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022); Andrew M. Davis, The Power of Christian Contentment: Finding Deeper, Richer Christ-Centered Joy (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019).
  3. Some of these include Daniel T. Cordaro, Yang Bai, Christina M. Bradley, Franklyn Zhu, Rachel Han, Dacher Keltner, Arasteh Gatchpazian, and Yitong Zhao, “Contentment and Self-Acceptance: Wellbeing Beyond Happiness,” Journal of happiness studies 25, no. 1–2 (2024); Howard Berenbaum, Alice B. Huang and Luis E. Flores, “Contentment and Tranquility: Exploring Their Similarities and Differences,” The Journal of Positive Psychology 14, no. 2 (2019): 252–259, https://www.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1484938; Daniel T. Cordaro, Christina Bradley, Jia Wei Zhang, Franklyn Zhu and Rachel Han, “The Development of the Positive Emotion Assessment of Contentment Experience (PEACE) Scale,” Journal of Happiness Studies, vol. 22, no. 4 (2021): 1769–1790, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00295-9; Daniel T. Cordaro, Marc Brackett, Lauren Glass, and Craig L. Anderson, “Contentment: Perceived Completeness across Cultures and Traditions,” Review of General Psychology 20, no. 3 (2016): 221–235, https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000082. There is another work, Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (NYU Press, 2008, https://doi.org/10.18574/9780814797471), but contentment is not even listed in the index and is hardly mentioned in the book itself.
  4. Cordaro et al., “The Development of the Positive Emotion Assessment of Contentment Experience (PEACE) Scale.”
  5. Cordaro et al., “The Development of the Positive Emotion Assessment of Contentment Experience (PEACE) Scale” 1769.
  6. Cordaro et al., “The Development of the Positive Emotion Assessment of Contentment Experience (PEACE) Scale,” 1772.
  7. Cordaro et al., “The Development of the Positive Emotion Assessment of Contentment Experience (PEACE) Scale” 1773.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

6 Comments

  • David C Winyard says:

    An interesting analysis. As an engineer, my professional responsibility was to find faults in systems and address them. I was not paid to simply appreciate that things worked, at least to some degree. Something had to be improved. I imagine many other professions are similar, with the overarching cultural imperative to make progress in all things by science. And is not continuous improvement a requirement for school accreditation? But as Christians, our imperative is to glorify God and build his Kingdom. We can be content in that role, while being continually dissatisfied with our fallen state and all the ills that come with it.

  • Michael Jindra says:

    I very much agree contentment is key, and often ignored. Thanks for the article. Let me just add that high expectations, along with a certain entitlement, seem to keep people from contentment. This is in material and career expectations, but also in emotions. Social media has made this worse. We need to better understand that life is often tragic, and that things often don’t go perfectly. This is reality. I like this article about the Finns, and the “importance of pessimism” A quote: “That instead of striving for joy – our most highly coveted emotion – we should be satisfied with good old-fashioned contentment. And the occasional walk in a park.”
    From https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/jun/28/world-happiest-nation-finland-nature-saunas

  • Michael Jindra says:

    This also relates to happiness vs contentment:
    Happiness Vs Contentment? A Case for a Sociology of the Good Life – Jordan McKenzie 2016 Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46 (3), 252-267. Happiness about feelings, pleasure, contentment more about connection with community

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    John Piper identified Philippians 1:21 (“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain”) as the verse that provided the key to happiness in this life. The verse is so thought provoking; I realized that if my walk with Christ and my service for Him was the most important thing, then when I die, I get HIM, that most important thing in my life, forever! How could I possibly want anything else to be content? But it IS hard sometimes to maintain that focus, because living day to day and dealing with the challenges that each one brings–some which last for days and days on end–joy, contentment become difficult. And so to the Philippians, Paul exhorted, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!”, and to the Thessalonians, he challenged “Rejoice always . . . in everything give thanks, all the while commanding them to “pray without ceasing”. So I think we are talking about with contentment is not an emotion (the world’s thinking) but a mindset, the practice of rejoicing and giving thanks no matter what the circumstances–and as I can personally attest, it is a mindset that requires considerable time to develop and maintain.

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