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Everything to Our Satisfaction?

Beyond Science

Sociologist Martin Schröder studies what makes us feel content: he analyzed a huge database, compiled over 34 years. Five findings that resulted from his work will surprise, explain and potentially even induce contentment.

What Increases our Sense of Contentment?

The factors which are most closely linked to contentment include sleep, a healthy diet, gratitude and relationships. But we cannot influence everything. “One can consciously choose gratitude”, explains Martin Schröder; “however, it will not work with sleep. We simply wake up.” The sociologist was surprised to find that children do not significantly increase contentment. One possible explanation: “Children make one feel contented, but so do all the other things that are possible without them.” Even money does not always increase contentment – as long as there is enough to live. The threshold is approximately 2,000 euros per month. Unemployment is a striking exception. It affects us tremendously – men even more than women.

Why are There Limits to Contentment?

Irrespective of whether we experience something negative such as a car accident or something positive like a promotion – according to the “set point theory”, our level of contentment will eventually revert back to the level which is predetermined by our genetics. For most people, this level reaches roughly seven out of ten points. If we were to be highly satisfied at all times, we would, according to Schröder, not feel the necessity to change our lives even a little bit – we may stop having children or making any kind of progress. On the other hand, dissatisfaction is equally important: it serves as a signal that something must change before our well-being will suffer even more.

What Makes Women and Men Be Content?

“The pure data indicate that people are quite happy in what we might consider rather traditional couple patterns”, says Martin Schröder. Women, for example, are less satisfied if they earn more than their male partner, or if the partner looks after all the housework. And fathers are more content the longer hours they work – which, in turn, will lead to higher levels of satisfaction in the mothers. How is this possible if everyone talks about and strives for equality? Martin Schröder: “We must not forget that the data represent the past. For this reason, I advise caution when it comes to making recommendations for political action based on these findings.”

What Do the Data Tell Us –
and What Do They not Tell Us?

Martin Schröder’s research is based on the socio-economic panel (SOEP) – the largest longitudinal study in Germany. Since 1984, the same roughly 30,000 people have been asked about their contentment; the dataset shows what has made Germans happy over the course of 34 years. At the same time, it does not imply hard-and-fast conclusions; the factors which correlate with our contentment do not necessarily cause it. According to Schröder, it is therefore also not a good idea to make assumptions about one’s own life – and the things that need to change in order to attain a higher level of contentment – based on published data alone.

How Can We Work on Our Own Contentment?

Whereas happiness is more of a chance event, contentment lends itself well to evaluation – a brief glance inside us will suffice. We can identify what bothers us and then do something about it. According to Schröder, striving for contentment is more helpful than striving for happiness. We need to know: one-third of our contentment is linked to things we cannot control; one-third is linked to long-term developments such as career, and one-third is derived from short-term goals such as getting more exercise. There are, however, tried-and-tested ways which help us become more contented, and they include two variables that we can control: gratitude and building and maintaining social connections.

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For those who want to delve deeper:
Professor Martin Schröder, who teaches at the Philipps-University in Marburg, Germany, has compiled his findings in a book.

Martin Schröder: “When do we reach a state of contentment? Surprising findings about work, love, children and money” (in German, Martin Schröder, 20 €, C. Bertelsmann publishers